BOSTON – It was a chance for Gordon Hayward to get something going the way he had gotten it going for the better part of the past month. By that point, it may have already been too late to save the night, but the Celtics were going to need him to do something to snap back into it to save the season starting on Monday.
Hayward entered the fourth quarter of Friday night’s 123-116 Game 3 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks with just three points. That was coming off a five-point, minus-30 effort in Tuesday’s Game 2 blowout. Throughout the two contests, Hayward found road blocks at every turn in his attempts to attack the rim. Through it all, he tried to make the next, right basketball play and halt his drive, swing the ball to the open man, and hope for a better shot for a teammate.
It’s a part of Hayward’s game that Celtics coach Brad Stevens praised throughout the season even when it was just about all he could contribute to the offense as he struggled to regain his lift and rhythm following last season’s horrific leg and ankle injury. It’s part of Hayward’s game that is admirable in an era when both ascending and established stars are often obsessed with maintaining their hierarchy in the team structure through their share of shots and points.
But, at some point, you need your maximum-contract player to find a way to score even when the first hoop instinct is to defer. At some point, if the Celtics are going to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight year, they are going to need Hayward to create his offense rather than shuffle the ball off to others when the Bucks line up to stop him in the lane.
“They really suck in when people drive,” Hayward said. “They meet you at the rim. Sometimes it’s two, three, sometimes four guys are around. They’re doing a good job of flying out afterward and trying to scramble.
“We just have to take advantage of that. We drive in, kick out, then if the shot’s not there, the second drive, third drive is going to be there. If you get into the paint like that, you’re going to have those opportunities.”
Only when Hayward has gotten into the paint not enough good things have happened in the back-to-back Celtics losses. While he has found a way late in his comeback season to make plays in space, regain his shooting stroke and find holes in the defense the way he did when he was an All-Star with Utah, two areas where he still struggles coming back from the injury is beating athletic defenders off the dribble and fighting through contact in the paint.
Through three quarters on Friday, Hayward – and to a certain extent Kyrie Irving – were once again sucked into the trap of Milwaukee’s interior defense that led the duo to shoot a combined 10-for-30 on the night.
“I thought we got a little deep on the drive tonight (in the second half),” Stevens allowed, “whereas in the first half, I thought we were doing a really good job of getting to the right depth and then making the right play. We turned it over a few times. They got it going in transition. They got going downhill.”
Some of the onus may be on Stevens to design sets for Hayward and Al Horford to score, rather than allow them the crutch of merely being facilitators. But some of the onus is also on Hayward to find a way to find his offense even when the Bucks make it difficult or uncomfortable for him to dig deep and search for it.
While Hayward averaged just 11.5 points on the regular season, he averaged 16.4 points over the final eight Celtics games of the season in which he shot 58.5 percent (48-of-82) from the floor, and 68.2 percent (42-for-63) on 2-point shots. He then averaged 12.4 points on 51.1 percent (22-for-43) shooting through the first five games of the playoffs.
It’s been a different story the past two games as Hayward had made just 3-of-13 attempts, and had just eight points over seven quarters, entering the final 10 minutes Friday night.
But there were some encouraging signs within Boston’s mild, failed comeback late. Hayward knocked down a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, and got to the line four times with four made free throws. It may have been a minor personal victory in a lost night for the Celtics overall. But it might be a sign that Hayward is ready to snap out of his developing funk in the playoffs the way he was not able to do for weeks at a time during the regular season.
“The next game is a new one for us,” he determinedCeltics. “I’m really looking forward to that one.”