Last season, Gordon Hayward missing his first seven shots through three quarters would have meant a discouraging ending. He would have been too hard on himself, stopped shooting, and turned himself into strictly a passer.
When he was unsure of himself coming back from his catastrophic leg injury and thought his lack of scoring was hurting the team, Hayward descended into a timid and limited player, just trying to stay out of everyone’s else’s way, trying not to make another mistake.
On Monday against the Chicago Bulls, Hayward missed his first six shots through three quarters and was scoreless. But in those 23 minutes, he collected eight assists and six rebounds, and was a plus-9.
He had his next shot attempt blocked in the fourth, but then responded by making his final four in a 113-101 win.
Hayward matched his season high with those eight assists and was determined to find other ways to help when he shot wasn’t falling. There are going to be games like this for every player, but Hayward’s improved fortitude is critical to the Celtics’ success.
They need him to be active and engaged, even when he isn’t scoring. Last season, his first back from the broken leg, he visibly doubted himself after a missed layup or open jumper. Fans grew impatient. And he understood and sometimes succumbed to the pressure of playing on a maximum contract and then getting hurt five minutes into that new deal.
There is a more encouraging swagger with Hayward now. He realized quickly Monday that it wasn’t his night to put up 20 shots. He attempted 11 and just one 3-pointers. The Celtics finished with six players in double figures, including reserves Grant Williams (11 points) and Marcus Smart (12).
It was a night for everybody to help out and that doesn’t always mean scoring. There are other ways to help win.
“There’s plenty of things you can do in a game to still try to make a positive impact,” Hayward said. “I think the nature of the team that we have, you don’t have the luxury of shooting through your first couple of misses. We just have so many options. It’s not like before where you were going to miss your first five, six or whatever but you’ll still go get 20 shots. So you have to find other ways to stay engaged and try to do your best on defense and trying to push it and get us some easy looks.”
Coach Brad Stevens is past the point of being concerned about Hayward’s mental state and confidence. He realizes Hayward understands his importance and impact on this team. And he has shifted his game plan more to Hayward as a playmaker, a point forward.
Hayward’s 4.2 assists per game this season is his highest in six years.
“He’s never been a guy that I’ve worried about, like starting off slow and not being good at the end,” Stevens said. “I mean, I think he’s got the wherewithal to do that. He’s making a concerted effort to just make the right play on both ends. And other than the shot-missing, I thought he was really good in the first half. And, you know, it’s really important that he helps lead us with his reads and passing and getting others the ball at the right times and stops and he’s done a good job at that. So, hopefully he won’t have nights where he goes out 0 for 8 very often, but if he does, it’s good that he recovered the way he recovered.”
Hayward’s playmaking is what can make the Celtics a real Eastern Conference contender. They have plenty scorers. On Monday, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Enes Kanter, and Kemba Walker all scored at least 14 points. It wasn’t necessary for Hayward to score. He needed to distribute and run the floor in transition, which creates more scoring opportunities.
“It’s something where we’re blessed to have so much talent, so many different scorers,” Hayward said. “I think when we’re at our best, we’re making teams try to guard us and we’re getting easy shots for everybody. And the ball is moving and that’s where it becomes really hard to guard. If we get too iso heavy sometimes, now there’s a lot of standing and we can’t utilize our weapons and we’re easier to guard.”
Last year, Hayward’s contributions went mostly unappreciated in what was a tumultuous season in which everybody, especially Hayward, accepted blame for the disappointing ending. Despite dealing with a myriad of injuries, Hayward has made an impact the Celtics’ surprising first half and on his teammates.
“Gordon is a great basketball player and he’s more than just a scorer,” Tatum said. “He’s really a playmaker. He always makes the right read. He finds guys wide open.”
Said Brown: “He’s a great, 6-8, 220-plus pounds. Dribble. Shoot. Pass. It’s tough to stop, especially if you have two other wings that can do the same thing out there. When he’s making those reads we’re going to have all-around scoring.”
Hayward is a completely different mental state than last season. He doesn’t feel the brunt of the responsibility when the Celtics lose or he is ineffective offensively. There are other things he can do and those around him know that and appreciate his various talents.