A little over two years ago, Gordon Hayward was on the floor in Cleveland with his left foot pointed in the wrong direction from the rest of his left leg. That injury, only 5:15 into Hayward’s first game with the Boston Celtics, not only wrecked his season, but left his entire career in doubt.
Over the course of 2017 and for most of 2018, everyone who watched the Celtics became homegrown experts in analyzing how someone walked, and eventually how they ran. We read everything we could about broken bones and dislocated ankles. “Did you see him on the pool deck? No shoes. That’s good. Means the team isn’t worried about him slipping!” lead to “Is his gait better? I think it’s better! If he’s running now, he can play soon!”
We tried to talk ourselves into a miraculous comeback for the 2018 playoff run. What if Boston used the Disabled Player Exception to add Greg Monroe and then Hayward made it back, too? Sadly, neither ended up working out as hoped for.
The 2018-19 season started with expectations at an all-time high. The kids and Al Horford had gotten to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals the year before. Had a couple more shots dropped, Boston would have been in the NBA Finals. Now? Hayward and Kyrie Irving were both coming back. That’s a 67-win team at least. The best laid plans of mice and men.
It would come out later that Hayward had to have another procedure done in the spring of 2018. That kept him off the floor with his teammates for most of that summer. Yet, when the season opened, Brad Stevens put Hayward in the starting lineup immediately. It was a gamble that the team’s overall talent would allow Hayward to play himself back into NBA shape, both physically and, more importantly, mentally.
Instead, that might have been the first crack in the foundation for a team with a skyscraper’s worth of talent. Reports later surfaced that some Celtics felt as though Hayward’s relationship with Stevens was getting him opportunities he didn’t earn. Minutes and roles were an issue all season. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who had become team leaders the previous season, were pushed to supporting roles. In retrospect, Irving was never really happy. Terry Rozier wanted the minutes and stats he got the previous year. All around, last season was a mess and no one handled it very well.
Through it all, Hayward kept getting incrementally better, at least statistically. While he wasn’t the guy Boston gave a four-year, max contract to, Hayward was regularly scoring in double figures by the end of the season. His passing was always on point, too. His defense and rebounding were fine, but nothing to write home about.
The problem? It never really looked good. Sure, there were flashes. He scored 30 and 35 in wins over the Minnesota Timberwolves, and in what was the 2018-19 Celtics last good moment, Hayward dropped 30 on the Warriors in Oakland. But overall, he looked tentative and scared. He was rarely seen in the paint, especially in any sort of traffic. Many began to question just how big of an albatross was Hayward’s $30 million plus a year contract on Boston’s cap sheet. It was even suggested that Danny Ainge should use some of his stash of draft picks to try and dump that deal.
All throughout, Ainge and Stevens never wavered in their support in Hayward. They regularly said they knew it would take time. After it came out that Hayward needed a second procedure in March of 2018, the Celtics decision-makers basically owned that this was a two-year recovery window. Mostly, they asked for patience and to trust that they knew Hayward would get back.
Flash forward to now. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night, Hayward was borderline unstoppable. He shot 17-of-20 on his way to 39 points. He went 16-of-16 on two-point shots, many of them layups or hitting the stop-and-fade shot in the paint that has become his signature shot. To put it simply, he got wherever he wanted whenever he wanted and the Cavs had no answer for him.
On top of the scoring, Hayward handed out eight assists and grabbed seven rebounds. He was also the primary defender on Cedi Osman and helped hold him to just 4-of-13 from the floor. The stats, as they have been all year long through six games, looked good.
But it’s not really about the box score for Hayward. It really hasn’t been about that for over year a now. It’s about how he looks and how he feels. As he has all of this season, Hayward is getting in the paint and making plays for himself or his teammates. He’s driving into traffic all the time now. There is no fear, no worries about his leg. It’s just basketball.
At the end of the Cavs game, he made a play he wouldn’t even have attempted last season. With Kemba Walker running the clock down and taking a three-pointer, Hayward takes off from the other side of the floor and crashes the glass. He’s going in amongst the trees. Right in the place where his career was forever altered.
Notice what you don’t see in that clip? Beyond your normal celebration of a big play late in a close game, no one goes crazy. It’s just basketball.
No one’s talking or worrying about how Gordon Hayward looks now. When he plays poorly, there are no more, “well, it’s going to take time” statements being made. When he plays well, there is no wild celebration. Oddly enough, that’s again a fair expectation of a player on a max contract. The expectation is that he plays well.
It’s just basketball. And for the first time in over a year, that’s a welcome return to normalcy for Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics.