CLEVELAND — Each time he comes here and plays, Gordon Hayward hopes this floor continues to lose its significance to him. Two years ago, he snapped his left leg at then-Quicken Loans Arena, setting his ascending career back nearly two years.
And quite frankly, he’d rather not acknowledge the coincidence or irony of turning in his best game as a Celtic on the same floor, this time called Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Yet, he knows the questions are coming. He knows teammates will celebrate each time he has a stellar game by dousing water on his head and he knows he’ll be quizzed about his health. It’s part of the Gordon Hayward experience, and he said he wishes it weren’t.
So the hope is nights like these — 39 points on 17-for-20 shooting with 7 rebounds and 8 assists in a 119-113 win over Cleveland — can shift the conversation to what Hayward can do now over what Hayward couldn’t do last year.
He carried the Celtics in stretches Tuesday, hitting all 16 of his shots inside the arc and then grabbing the clinching rebound and scoring a putback to stave off a furious Cleveland rally. It was one of those nights the Celtics envisioned when they signed Hayward to a maximum contract in July 2017, but they’ve had to wait two years for it to happen.
“It was a good night, maybe I shouldn’t have shot those threes [that he missed] and kept shooting the twos,” he said.
When asked it felt more satisfying in this building, Hayward said: “No. It felt just sweet that we got the win. It would have been a tough one to lose, leading the whole game and to just give it up at the end.”
Hayward scored his 16 2-point buckets on an array of floaters and short turnaround jumpers. He also attacked the rim for seven layups. It was a midrange clinic for Hayward, who is shooting 56.3 percent from the field for the season and is averaging 20.3 points.
The catastrophic, season-ending leg injury sustained by Hayward robbed Celtics faithful of a chance to see the Hayward who was developing into one of the game’s top small forwards. He endured a rocky transition year in his first season back from the injury, but he seems to have rediscovered his confidence and game this early season.
“There’s obviously been more opportunities this year and we’re running some things that I am comfortable doing,” the 29-year-old forward said. “As long as I keep attacking, not overthinking the game, being hesitant, I should be fine. Not every night it’s going to be me scoring. As long I’m getting in the paint and making the right reads, we’ll be fine.”
Hayward entered this past summer completely healthy and was able to work on the idiosyncrasies of his game without injury hindrance.
“I don’t think about [my leg],” he said. “I haven’t thought about it for a while. I think it’s over. You guys can stop asking me the questions about that. It’s a good game, but we can’t be satisfied. And hopefully they can stop dumping water on me after every good game. But that’s all right, I like it.”
Without Jaylen Brown (illness) for a third consecutive game and Enes Kanter (knee) for a fifth, the Celtics lacked size against the burly Cavaliers. But they were able to win the rebounding battle (45-44), thanks to a combined 13 rebounds from the starting backcourt of Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart.
And while Walker supported Hayward with 25 points, including a pair of timely threes, the 6-foot-3-inch Smart embraced the responsibility of defending 6-8 Kevin Love, the five-time All-Star who scored two post-up buckets earlier in the fourth quarter.
With the Celtics leading, 116-113, Smart defended Love in the post, pushed him away from the basket with his lower body, and forced an errant bank shot. Without Kanter and with coach Brad Stevens reluctant to give Vincent Poirier minutes, he opted for Smart to defend Love. His ploy worked.
“Just make him work for everything, especially when he gets the ball down low,” Smart said. “We all know how great of a player Kevin Love is, especially against smaller [players]. I was excited [to guard Love]. I consider myself a stretch-6, so I love those types of challenges.”
The Celtics have found success beating teams with their versatility. And they also overcame their disturbing habit of subpar offensive starts. They shot 54.5 percent in the first half and 56.5 percent for the game. Walker converted six of his eight 3-point shots while Jayson Tatum added 18 points.
Another encouraging sign was the performance of rookie Carsen Edwards, who helped with 13 points off the bench on 5-for-6 shooting .
But it was Hayward who soared for that offensive rebound and clinching score with 22.8 seconds left, capping off one of the best nights of his suddenly resurgent career, prompting Cleveland coach John Beilein to give him Boston-flavored praise.
“What he does really well, even better than that, is he stops on a dime,” Beilein said. “Johnny Most would be very proud of him. He just stops on a dime, so when we is doing downhill, he is tough to stop.
“Brad creates really good leverage for him. With the big body and the ability to really handle like a guard, tough matchup for everybody, and he’s playing like he did before his injury.”