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Gordon Hayward finds his aggressiveness

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This week, Kyrie Irving said he wanted to see a more aggressive Gordon Hayward. Last night against the Cavaliers, Hayward delivered.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

This week was a slow one for the Boston Celtics. After an impressive 17-point win against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night, the team settled into a three-day layoff before last night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, allowing some time for practice and self-reflection. Foremost among those talking about the immediate outlook of the team was Kyrie Irving, who had some constructive feelings about Gordon Hayward and his ongoing return from last season’s catastrophic leg injury.

Irving hit this particular nail right on the head. As CelticsBlog’s own Bill Sy discussed before last night’s game, Hayward has shown a serious lack of aggression, which — while very much understandable considering what he’s coming back from — has held the Celtics’ offense back to some extent. For this team to achieve the ceiling that so many have seen for them, they need a fully realized version of what Hayward has shown he can be.

Well, after last night’s 33-point victory over the Cavs — featuring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting from Hayward, in just 22 minutes — it was very much apparent that Irving felt (understandably) validated in his comments.

That right there is a happy moment, exciting moment for all of us, because it was all in the flow of our offense. It was all Gordon being Gordon, getting to the spots where he wanted to and being the player he’s been over the course of his career.

Indeed, from the get-go against Cleveland, it was obvious that Irving’s message had sunk in. The Gordon Hayward who took the court for the Celtics last night was one that was visibly more confident about his own place as a basketball player and as a member of the Celtics’ offense.

It may not necessarily feel like Hayward, who came off the bench and played just 22 minutes in a blowout, had all that much of an impact on this game — but he did. For the night, he posted a +/- of +16 — far and away the best of the Celtics’ bench. It wasn’t exactly the most buzz-worthy performance — not something that would make a highlight package on SportsCenter — but Hayward was efficient, quick and confident, and the whole team prospered as a result.

He even — confidently! — went up for a set-play alley-oop attempt that appeared scarily familiar for anyone who witnessed his brief stint with the team last season.

This is an undeniable positive for the Boston Celtics. Burdened with exceptionally high expectations, this team has largely limped out of the gate through the first quarter of the season, and the most obvious area of improvement is their struggling, inconsistent offense. The Celtics have shown very little consistency from game to game — or even quarter to quarter — on the offensive end, and that’s something they’ll have to rectify if they’re going to put together a winning streak and right the ship.

As Irving implied, a return to form from their 28-year-old All-Star wing player would no doubt help in this regard — and as Irving celebrated after the victory, plays like this are an encouraging sign.

Of course, the process still remains at least a little ways away from complete. Even with yet more obviously positive steps last night, there is still more room for improvement with this particular comeback campaign. Even Hayward himself wasn’t content to rest on his laurels after the blowout, acknowledging that he still has a little ways to go:

There was a play today where I went around and tried to shoot a layup, and missed the layup. I think “Old G” would have tried to dunk that, and that’s something that I gotta continue to ... watch the film and look at that and kind of relearn what I used to do and what I can still do.

The play in question is indeed one that the “Old G” would have attempted to dunk, as he knifed through Andrew Harrison and the fourth quarter Cleveland defense. As decisively and aggressively has he drove, the hesitation Hayward referenced is palpable, hesitating right at the moment of truth and settling for an awkwardly positioned off-hand layup.

When you get right down to it, that particular play is a little bit of a microcosm of Hayward’s first healthy season in Boston. He made the right play, objectively: beating a defender who was horribly out of position and a rim defense that wasn’t remotely up to the task of picking it up, but failed to convert in a way that can very frankly be chalked up to a lack of self-confidence. Hayward has made an impressive amount of progress in his return to the NBA court, but it’s evident that there are still a few more hurdles to clear yet.

As he always seems to do, Irving would summarize this effectively, too:

It’s challenging, coming from a fractured ankle then coming into this season, with all the talent that we have, and still trying to be the same player. It’s just a lot more sacrifice, a lot more to do, so I’m just proud of him, man, just proud of our guys, figuring this thing out.

Undoubtedly, Hayward has struggled — shooting well below his career norms for the year and posting some notably poor performances. And he’s sacrificed, as well, accepting a bench role despite being the team’s highest-paid player. Still, in recent games, we’ve witnessed some serious progress in his return to NBA stardom. As he continues to reach that goal, the Celtics’ ceiling can only continue to rise.