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What Gordon Hayward’s dominance over Minnesota means for his recovery

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Gordon Hayward has developed a bit of a reputation for crushing the Timberwolves. His latest performances was a significant mile marker on his comeback journey.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if this sounds familiar: after a string of poor shooting nights, Gordon Hayward put together a much-needed dominant performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves, perhaps signaling that “Old G” is closer than ever to being officially “back.”

If you’re feeling the tingle of deja vu right now, it’s because we actually have been here before. In the Celtics’ December first meeting with Minnesota, Hayward turned in his first truly exceptional performance in Celtics green. He poured in 30 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals in just 29 minutes of play. It was the first time Celtics fans really the potential of what the former All-Star could bring to the team since his season-ending injury against the Cleveland Cavaliers last year.

Of course, that time, it turned out that “Old G” really wasn’t quite there yet. Over his next nine games, Hayward cracked 40% shooting from the field just twice, missing a truckload of threes in the process. The whispers of frustration crept back in, as fans speculated on when his seemingly endless recovery process might show some major progress.

So, here we are again.

While it might be tempting to chalk up Hayward’s 35-point performance on Wednesday as him simply having the Wolves’ number, there’s reason to believe that it was exactly the kind of progress we’ve been looking for. From an offensive standpoint, the encore surpassed the original act. The way Hayward went about securing his buckets this time around should be cause for quite a bit of optimism.

Let’s start with something simple: his shot charts. Here’s Hayward’s 30-point performance against the Wolves in December’s matchup:

Now, contrast that against Wednesday’s 35-point follow-up:

The difference is clear: Hayward finished at the rim. Though the December game might have been more impressive from an all-around perspective (he added nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals, compared to one rebound and five assists on Wednesday), this was Hayward’s best offensive performance in a Celtics uniform. The tentativeness that has plagued him for much of this season was nowhere to be found, especially in the second half. He repeatedly torched Minnesota’s miserable perimeter defense off the dribble and looked for his own shot when he got to the rim. In weeks past, he likely would have looked to pass out of this drive, rather take it all the way home.

Finishing at the rim has been a bugaboo for Hayward throughout the first half of the season. He’s often looked too conscious of his own physical limitations and has tended to assume a more passive offensive role, often passing out of drives or settling for awkward fadeaway jumpers instead of getting to the hole. Considering Hayward’s proficiency as a facilitator and ball-handler, he’s managed to be a net positive for the Celtics’ offense despite this — the team’s offensive rating drops ever so slightly with him off the court, from 109.2 to 107.3. But the Celtics want to see him taking greater advantage of his scoring ability, an opinion reinforced by both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart at various points this season. That starts with being more assertive with his shots.

As impressive as his December performance was, he still struggled with quite a few of these issues. Though he did a good job absorbing contact en route to 10 free throw attempts, only two of his eight made baskets came at the hoop. The attempts he actually made there were a little soft. Watch how he bonks this wide-open, alley-oop finish off the rim:

Now, compare that to this cutting dunk from the third quarter on Wednesday:

That right there, is the difference between the two performances. There was an edge to Hayward on Wednesday that we didn’t see the first time around. He ran Andrew Wiggins and Josh Okogie ragged for much of the second half and took full advantage of every window he saw to the rim. He only recorded a single assist after halftime and, considering how passive he’s been as a scorer to this point, I’d actually consider that a good thing.

In perhaps his signature play of the night, Hayward used a pair of staggered screens from Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele (imagine being a defender and running into those two back-to-back) to gain an advantage on Okogie, then swept past a sleepwalking Karl-Anthony Towns for the lay-up—all without hesitation.

While we’re talking analyzing this performance in the midst of Hayward’s recovery, it’s important that we keep a frame of reference for just how he looked at his pre-injury best. This was actually his third consecutive 30+ point performance against the Timberwolves— on April 7, 2017, he poured in 39 points on 14-of-22 shooting against a similar-ish (read: Jimmy Butler-free) Minnesota roster in one of his final regular season games for the Utah Jazz. Here’s what that game looked like:

Go figure—his performance came with a healthy dose of baskets within five feet of the hoop.

Remember that Hayward is not strictly a jump-shooter; he’s a true three-level scorer who derives his offensive value from being able to do basically everything. In that 2017 outburst, he displayed his entire bag of tricks; he attacked off the dribble; shot quick jumpers off screens both on and off the ball; attacked the rim with impunity; and took a healthy eight attempts from the free throw line. Finishing at the rim is crucial to this because of how it unlocks everything else he can do. If defenses aren’t respecting him at the basket, his other moves become easier to manage.

The player that dropped 39 points on the Wolves in April 2017 is who the Celtics wanted when they offered him that max contract two summers ago. The player that scored 30 against them in December was not really the same guy, but the player who scored 35 points this past Wednesday looked pretty dang close. Watch his aggression in finishing this dunk in the Jazz game, then compare it to the two following plays from December and Wednesday. You’ll see what I mean.

December’s performance might have felt a bit like fool’s gold, considering the slump that followed. This Wednesday was different, though. While it’s certainly unfair to expect him to immediately shift into this gear every night for the rest of the season, this was a compelling move in the right direction. To the relief of everyone, fans and team alike, “Old G” might finally be showing his face again.