Gordon Hayward is looking more comfortable and confident
After the Celtics’ 126-120 win over the Sacramento Kings Thursday, Gordon Hayward soaked his ankles in a bucket of ice and chatted amiably with a reporter. Hayward has displayed cold feet this season on the court, particularly when he doesn’t get off to a hot start. Some nights he has looked hesitant and diffident in his return from a gruesome left ankle injury that robbed him of his inaugural season as a Celtic.
This could have been one of those nights when Hayward’s game disappeared into the ether after an out-of-sync, 0-for-3, point-free first half. He could have declared it wasn’t his night after he missed his first shot, an uncontested layup, and his shoulders slumped. Instead, he doubled back to the rim and doubled down on attacking, ending the evening as one of six Celtics in double figures.
On a night full of good signs for the homecoming Celtics — highlighted by Kyrie Irving’s first Boston triple-double — perhaps the most encouraging was that Hayward shrugged off a rough start and remained aggressive, making big plays late in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter to finish with 10 points and 4 assists on 3-of-7 shooting.
The Celtics are invested in Hayward. They have been all season. They’ve taken the long view with him, feeding him minutes and feeling that the restoration of his game is crucial to this team reaching its considerable potential.
Nearly 70 games into a trying season for both team and player, Hayward is flashing more confidence while looking more comfortable. His contributions are more consistent. He can brush off shaky starts and the need to cross some elusive mile marker that proves he’s back.
“I don’t think it’s something that I think about, honestly,” said Hayward. “What I’m trying to think about is being aggressive when I have those moments, getting to the rim more, just being a little more assertive, so not worrying about ‘I’m back.’ ”
The last time the Celtics played the Kings, Hayward was the hero. He went the length of the court and won the game with a wrong-footed runner with two seconds left. It felt like his Celtics initiation. It was part of an encouraging West Coast trip for the team and Hayward.
But maintaining momentum has been a problem for both this season. So, it was vital for the first game back on the parquet to be positive.
Hayward hit Sacramento with another buzzer-beating drive to end the third quarter and break a 91-91 deadlock. It was his first field goal, but he scored six of the Celtics’ first 11 points of the fourth.
“I just was trying to be aggressive getting to the rim, trying to get myself going that way,” said Hayward. “The first half I didn’t get nearly as many opportunities, so when I got in in the second I was just trying to attack.”
It’s not a coincidence that Hayward became more engaged when the ball was in his hands as a point guard. When the Celtics, who trailed by as many as 13 in the third, made their run, Hayward was handling the ball and initiating the offense, allowing Irving, who was brilliant with 31 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds, to play off the ball. It’s clearly a role that Hayward feels comfortable in, and it’s a familiar one for his old college coach Brad Stevens to entrust him with.
“I grew up as a point guard, and that’s something that I’m used to doing and happy to do,” said Hayward. “You know, whatever they need me to do.
“Certainly, I think having the ball in your hands gets you some juice going, gets you some rhythm, even if you’re just bringing it up to pass it. It does get you going a little bit.”
One of the issues for everyone on this Celtics team has been trying to strike a balance between pursuing their shots and not stepping on the toes of others who might be in more of a groove. Hayward said guys are “still trying to read those moments.”
It’s easy for Hayward to fade into the basketball background on a night when Irving, Jaylen Brown (22 points), Marcus Morris (21 points and 13 rebounds) and Jayson Tatum (15 points on 7-of-10 shooting) are cooking. But the Celtics don’t want that. His aggressiveness is a good omen for the Green. Boston is 25-7 when Hayward reaches double figures.
In addition to a bench role and his confidence, Hayward has to combat his own altruistic, pass-first nature. He’s not Kobe Bryant; attack mode isn’t his default.
“I think that I grew up like that,” said Hayward. “I grew up thinking that I was going to be John Stockton or Steve Nash. My parents are both 5-10, so I was told my whole life if I want to play in the NBA, I’m going to have to be a point guard. So I naturally always like getting others involved and passing more than scoring for myself.
“But I’ve had people tell me through the course of my career that I need to be more aggressive, be more assertive for my own. So, it’s a balance. I’ve got to try to balance that.”
It’s all a big balancing act for the Celtics this season, but it feels like they’re finding an equilibrium and Hayward is finding a new normal post-mangled ankle.
Kings forward Harrison Barnes said it’s noticeable that Hayward has his confidence back.
“I think he’s playing great,” said Barnes. “I think he’s looking good. I think as he continues to get more and more healthy he’ll be even better.”
Hayward has been a frequent target of criticism this season for his uneven play. Barnes said people need to cut him some slack. His rehab is happening in real time.
“Look, there is only so much lifting, one-on-one simulation, running on a treadmill,” said Barnes. “You can do all of these things, but there is nothing that simulates game reps, having unconstricted movement where you just go, you play, you have to react. There is no real rehab for that. You just have to go out there and play.
“It wasn’t like he went down to the G-League and then he came back. No, he was just thrown into the fire. You just go out there and play. It takes time. His rehab is still occurring in front of people.
“So I think that’s what people have to understand when they say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t look like he looked in Utah.’ Well, he’s still coming back. Look at Paul George his first year back. Now, this year he’s in the MVP conversation. So, it takes time.”
Neither Hayward nor the Celtics are completely in sync yet. After Hayward got stripped in the fourth quarter, he and Morris had an involved discussion about proper floor spacing that continued through a timeout with seven minutes left.
But the Celtics are getting closer to symbiosis. They’re getting closer to what they need to be. The same is true for Hayward.