BOSTON – Stop me if you’ve heard this one about Gordon Hayward before this season.
Keep reading if you sense that this time might just be different.
Hayward’s return from last year’s gruesome, potentially career-threatening, injury did not follow the storybook everyone hoped it would. A tentative start, lingering caution and pain, recurrent setbacks, and ongoing doubt during the comeback turned the campaign into a series of fits, starts and legitimate concern if Hayward would ever again be the player he was before he went up for that fateful alley-oop in the first quarter of last season’s opener in Cleveland.
There were signs of progress – mostly in games against the Minnesota Timberwolves – and there was the instance from Celtics coach Brad Stevens that, despite the pedestrian point totals and long bouts of invisibility on the floor, Hayward was consistently “making the right basketball play.”
But as the weeks, and then the months, and then nearly the entire regular season, moved along, there was a growing reluctance from those who had been rooting for Hayward to break through all year to believe it was going to happen.
Believe it was going to happen this season. Believe it might ever happen again for the former All-Star.
Each time Hayward looked on the verge of a true renaissance to his former self something would get in his way. A December illness, a sprained ankle out of the All-Star break, a black eye earlier this month – although, admittedly, the black eye was pretty bad ass for a guy who spends that much time on his hair – and then a concussion with a month left in the regular season left the player, and those rooting for him, contemplating whether it was yet another lost year.
Coming out of the concussion, however, Hayward has looked like a different player. Not just a making-shots different player. Not just a making-the-right-basketball-play different player. But a player who has finally had enough with all the reasons he can’t be what he was, and has developed renewed resolve to prove he is still that guy.
“I have not,” Hayward said Wednesday afternoon at Auerbach Center when asked if he might sit out games late in the regular season to rest for the playoffs. “I think I did a lot of that early on with my ankle, and all of last year. I am definitely, as of right now, feeling pretty good – as long as I don’t get a random concussion, or anything like that.”
Hayward returned from the concussion with a 13-point, 10-rebound, double-double in Sunday’s loss to San Antonio on Gordon Hayward Bobblehead Night, before hitting 7-of-12 shots for 15 points, five rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes off the bench Tuesday in Cleveland. Hayward was aggressive on the floor attacking the rim – even dunking on the same basket under which he watched as his ankle dangled off the side of his leg following the catastrophic injury 18 months earlier – as he crashed through the latest roadblock in his season where he had tiptoed in the past.
“I don’t necessarily equate aggressiveness with number of shots,” Stevens said. “Certainly, when he has a high volume of shots he’s usually taking good ones. He can be aggressive in a number of different ways. Sometimes the opening will be the shot. Sometimes it will be the pass. He did both (Tuesday) night.
“Then I think where you see the greatest signal of growth for him in the past six months has been on the defensive end. He’s way more comfortable moving laterally and guarding. You can put him on a number of different guys and he’s done a good job on that end.”
Gordon Hayward gets a nice little ovation pregame as he returns to the parquet from a concussion on his own Bobblehead Night.*
(*Pictured is Gordon Hayward Bobblehead, not the actual Gordon Hayward.) @CelticsCLNS @CLNSMedia #Celtics pic.twitter.com/t17PQbrkUg
— Scott Souza (@Scott_Souza) March 24, 2019
If the Celtics are going to go anywhere in the playoffs, they are going to need him to be more like the Gordon Hayward that bursts through the screen in the video game commercial than the one awkwardly looking for a new place to live in the real estate one. They are going to need the Gordon Hayward who not only sees the floor, but takes command of it as a playmaker. They are going to need the Gordon Hayward who looks at the rim as something to attack rather than a place where his ankle tries to remind him he does not belong.
If the Celtics are going to go anywhere in the playoffs, they are going to need the Gordon Hayward of the last two games to get by his hometown Indiana Pacers for the fourth seed in the remaining meetings against them in the final two weeks of the regular season.
“I thought he looked fresh each of the last two games and did some good things,” Stevens said. “You could feel not having him in those three games before. Just from the standpoint of settling us down, being able to play through him, and making the next right play for somebody, it’s good to have him back.”
It’s fair to doubt whether Hayward is truly back for good based on all the false starts this season.
Yet, it’s also reasonable to look at the stronger, healthier and more confident Hayward of the past two games, and determine that this just might be the turning point that everyone has been hoping for all year.
And how that could make all the difference for the Celtics heading into the second season.
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