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Has Gordon Hayward played himself back into the starting lineup?

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Hayward comes alive to add to a surging Celtics offense.

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a rough year for Gordon Hayward. The All-Star wing is healthy enough to be back and he’s now off a minutes restriction, but his game has progressed slower than most of fans were anticipating. The outlines of the player Hayward once was showed in flashes. There was the 18 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds performance against the Milwaukee Bucks or the 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists against the Raptors. But they’ve been blanketed by poor shooting nights and passive games that have caused some concern about just how long it may take for Hayward to return to form.

The passivity led to Kyrie Irving pulling his co-star aside to urge him to look for his shot more. The first step was an aggressive game against the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 14-point, 4 rebounds, and 4 assist output in 24 minutes. Then, on a second night of the back-to-back against the hottest team in the league, Gordon Hayward had his best game of the year. The final tally speaks for itself: 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists on a ridiculous 73.5 TS%.

From an emotional standpoint, this was big for Hayward. He accepted a bench role while the team was trying to figure out rotations, and despite his shot not going through, he added value by providing solid team defense and advanced playmaking for his position. So when his offensive game finally came around, his teammates were proud of him:

Aside for the great emotional lift Hayward provided for himself, he also showed us exactly why many considered him the Celtics best all-around talent. Offensively, Hayward did his work in many different ways. He worked as a pick-and-roll ball handler where he was able to create for his teammates:

They even switched it up and used him as the screener where he was able to get downhill and be a little more aggressive looking for his own offense:

Hayward further highlighted his advanced IQ by using some of his great relocating ability off the ball which created a passing lane for his teammates and put him in more positions where he could look for his own offense or create for his teammates:

In transition the Celtics showed a nice little reverse drag screen where Horford screened for Hayward rather than the ball-handler opening up a wide open three for Hayward to take advantage of:

Hayward also proved to be a load in the post where he drew multiple fouls on bigs because of maintaining solid position and got a bucket crashing the boards when nobody put a body on him:

On the defensive end, Hayward was his usual solid self. The biggest and most important play he made was late in the 4th quarter when Stevens made the bold decision to put him on Derrick Rose who was trying to lead one last Wolves push. On his first position defending Rose he used his length to disrupt a pick and roll and cause a turnover which lead to a transition opportunity that ended like this:

Overall, Hayward showed that when he’s on fire he can still make everyone better, leading the team in plus/minus (+14) and was only behind Irving in assists. The next question is with four days off between now and their next game, should the Celtics take the opportunity to bring Hayward back into the starting lineup?

Is it time for Hayward to start?

It feels weird to actually be discussing whether the highest paid player on the team should start, but this year has been weird and things are complicated. After the game last night, there was an interesting discussion that suggested that despite looking like Hayward has looked more like his normal self, he should still come off the bench. The thinking goes that the team has had its best stretch of the year with the current starters they have now and changing things could put the Celtics back in the uncertainty they just got out of. It’s not unfair logic and makes sense, but I disagree.

It’s important to remember that when Hayward initially was asked to come off the bench it wasn’t for Marcus Morris. The team was struggling to start games and the thought was that by maybe starting games with their old starting 5 (Irving-Brown-Tatum-Horford-Baynes), they could correct it. The plan didn’t work, they lost to Charlotte and New York before Morris replaced Horford in his absence against the Hawks and then Baynes against the Mavericks. It was the insertion of Smart against the Pelicans where the team seemed to take it another notch and that’s because they replaced a young wing in Jaylen Brown who was still trying to figure out where he fit in with an assertive Marcus Smart whose ball-handling ability helped take pressure off of Irving and his ability to defend the point of attack and communicate on both ends helped the overall synergy of the group. Marcus Morris’ function in that has been simply a guy who has been okay operating as an off-ball shooter and versatile defender.

With Hayward, you can get those things along with another player who can create better looks for the rest of his teammates and himself. The team can also begin to get more minutes between the Irving/Hayward/Horford trio that only averages 15.2 mpg which isn’t even in the top 50 in the league. For the team to get anywhere this year, it’ll rely heavily on their synergy on the court.

It’s important to remember that despite how early in the year it is, this entire regular season is mostly about the team finding their identity, finding their best lineups, and getting those lineups the most reps possible before April. A lineup of Irving-Smart-Tatum-Hayward-Horford puts the teams smartest and most versatile players on the court at one time. They’ll obviously need to stagger to ensure that guys like Rozier and Brown have other playmakers to play off of, but that shouldn’t stop them from making the move, especially now while they have a four-day break to change the lineup, adjust to roles, and practice with new roles before their next game.

It’s possible that Stevens just keeps the same lineup and lets it go until the All-Star Game in February. The teams lineup is doing very well (13.8 net rating), but with that being said, the Raptors have two separate lineups that have played double and quadruple the amount of minutes any Celtics 5-man lineup has got and both have better net ratings. Getting the early jump now on integrating a move that can raise the ceiling of a lineup now seems like the right play, but only time will tell.