It wasn’t that Gordon Hayward flourished in his Celtics playoff debut. Nobody did offensively in Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers. It was that Hayward was back, and his presence was hardly a story line.
He has been inundated with questions about the fractured left tibia and dislocated ankle he suffered in his first regular-season game as a Celtic, Oct. 17, 2017. A year and a half later, against his hometown team, Hayward made his playoff debut for Boston and scored 10 points in the Celtics’ 84-74 win.
He is no longer a sympathetic figure. He is just a ballplayer trying to make an impact for a playoff team, trying to prove he’s capable of regaining his former prowess after what has been a difficult transitional year after regaining health.
His season was bumpy, with some vintage games mixed with some subpar ones. Hayward spent the season trying to find himself.
“It’s definitely been a year that’s required a lot of patience and some frustration,” he said. “Starting with just being on a minutes restriction. I never had to do that before, and then slowly working my way back and I’d have a good game and you guys would talk about me being back.
“I kind of just said it throughout the year, you can’t get too high on the highs and too low on the lows.
“You’re just trying to improve and get better through the year and I felt like I’ve done that.”
Month by month, Hayward’s numbers were essentially the same. But he averaged 18.3 points in four April games. And after the All-Star break, Hayward shot 55.1 percent from the field, a sign that his midrange jumper was becoming more effective. He is making the jump back to being a dependable option.
Hayward said he intentionally has not watched video of himself from October or November, when he was still trying to prove to himself that he could play without getting hurt. The mental hurdle proved much more challenging than the physical one.
“You could tell that I was still working my way through things, for sure,” he said. “Our team was working our way through things as well. I think we’ve improved a lot since then.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens made Hayward a starter to begin the season, a role he didn’t appear physically ready for. His move to the bench proved to be the perfect way to get him comfortable. He could get his swagger back against other NBA reserves and methodically regain his confidence.
“I think Gordon’s been playing pretty good for a while,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “There’s just not the injury but coming off the bench, sometimes playing 20-25 minutes.
“Gordon is playing better but it does look like he’s playing with a little bit more swagger.”
“Certainly I’m more comfortable in what I’m doing out on the court,” Hayward said. “I think our team is more comfortable as well. Some of it is getting a chance to know how I play and my strengths and learn each other’s strengths and soar with each other’s strengths.
“It’s definitely been a process for all of us.”
Hayward and his wife, Robyn, have three daughters, all under 8, including an infant born during the season. His older daughters are starting to comprehend that dad plays in the NBA and missed last season because of a “boo-boo.”
“They always ask me if I had so much fun when I play basketball because I always ask them if they had fun at school,” he said. “They just reciprocate that, and I don’t know if they know exactly what’s going on, but this year is different than last year in that they know my outfit when I’m playing basketball and they can tell the Celtics. They know the Celtics are green. They can recognize it a little more, which makes it fun.”
What’s Hayward’s answer now when they ask if he’s having fun?
“I said, ‘Yeah, I have so much fun,’ and then the next question is, ‘Were you so careful?’ Because I’ve had some ‘boo-boos,’ as they call them, and they want to make sure I’m careful when I’m playing and I don’t trip and fall.
“They don’t really understand but they have a grasp of it.”