After starting the year as the pre-season favorite to face the Warriors in The Finals, Boston has dealt with growing pains. The defense has been there. Of lineups that have played at least 100 minutes this season, starting or otherwise, Boston’s super switchy original Big Five averages the 5th best DefRtg at 94.9. Unfortunately, the ideal of Boston’s five-fingered offense hasn’t exactly come to fruition yet.
The Celtics opened the season with a rusty Kyrie Irving, tentative play from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, a ho-hum start from Al Horford, and a returning Gordon Hayward. While most of the prior players have started rounding into form, Hayward was recently demoted to the second unit as he gets his NBA legs under him.
Hayward’s hardly been the weak link of that group, but he hasn’t exactly played to the top line of his resume: “2017 NBA All Star, playmaker, jack-of-all-trades.” We’ve seen glimpses as he’s slogged through his first nineteen games after missing nearly a year of basketball. Between October and November, he’s shed the minutes restriction, found success attacking the paint and getting to the line, and seen a major uptick in assists. Entering the second quarter of the regular season, he’ll look to build on that progress with Hayward getting some words of encouragement from Irving during the Celtics’ mini-break back in Boston:
Here's Kyrie Irving unfiltered on wanting Gordon Hayward to be more aggressive on offense: pic.twitter.com/gYpvJMrjCs— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) November 29, 2018
In his final season in Utah, Hayward averaged an efficient 22 points on 40% shooting from behind the arc and getting to the free throw line six times a game. He’s no where near those numbers yet in his comeback, but there’s a growing confidence in his teammates that Hayward will soon turn the corner. He’s been a willing passer for sure, but until he forces defenses to account for his offense, the Celtics are just scraping the surface of their potential.
This has been the typical Hayward possession as a playmaker; he’ll work a pick-and-roll and hit the weak side shooter for a three. In this case, it’s Semi Ojeleye.
However, there are so many times when Hayward is passive with the ball. Even coming off two screens, he doesn’t put any pressure on the defense and makes the simple play with a dribble hand off to Irving. In Utah, Hayward would be more apt to try and turn the corner and force the opposing team to defend his drive.
And even when he has put his head down and decided to attack the rim, his drives lack the final aggression of a player looking to score. In his defense, his apprehension can be attributed to the lingering effects of his injury. That’s a mental hurdle that could take a while to overcome and Hayward’s fully aware of it. He told The Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach that he knows he needs to drive and get to the free throw line more:
“I think it’s a confidence thing. It’s a confidence of when I go in there, knowing how to create the contact and not being afraid of it. I think it’s something I’ve just got to go do, and not be hesitant when I get in there.”
Against the Hawks three nights before, he was a little more aggressive and even though he notched just 11 points, you could see how his willingness to confidently hit the paint changed the game for his teammates.
It’s a similar action as the aforementioned Ojeleye 3 with Hayward coming off an Aron Baynes pick and whipping the ball to Marcus Morris on the weak side, but look how much room Morris has to work with because his defender sunk in to help on the Hayward drive.
At the start of the second, Hayward again hits the paint and freezes three defenders with his dribble. He finds Ojeleye in the corner for an open three.
Hayward and Daniel Theis run another pick-and-roll from the far corner and because the weak side defender is more keen to Hayward hitting Ojeleye again, he’s late tagging the Theis roll.
With Al Horford out tonight against the Cavaliers for rest, this is a good opportunity for Hayward to be a playmaker above the break. As Hayward said, “I’m trying to make the right play a lot of times and sometimes that gets me in trouble. It’s about imposing my will on the game, and sometimes you just have to go attack it. I need to do more of that.” He’s a sneaky aggressive two-hand dunker and it’s just a matter of time until he comes around a screen, sees daylight, and crams home any doubt that he’s going to be the player he once was.