It was sort of an early Christmas present for the Boston Celtics to have Gordon Hayward return to the starting lineup nearly two weeks earlier than originally anticipated.
Hayward had missed 13 games due to a broken left hand he had surgerically repaired after he sustained the fracture on Nov. 9 against the San Antonio Spurs.
There was some minor rust evident as he played his first game in a month Monday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the 6-foot-7 forward showed glimpses of what made Celtics fans giddy over Hayward’s first eight games of the season.
In 26 minutes, Hayward was an efficient 7-of-10 from the floor as he finished with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in the C’s 110-88 win over the Cavs at TD Garden.
“The hand feels good,” said Hayward, who fully expects to play again on Wednesday when Boston travels to face the Indiana Pacers. “Tonight was a good test, too, dealing with their bigs and trying to block them out. Certainly I have to build some more strength in it. My motion is not all the way back but I didn’t feel like it affected me.”
Hayward is no stranger of anticipated returns to court from injury. But Hayward, who made a valiant comeback last season after a gruesome leg injury in the first five minutes of his Celtics debut in 2017, admitted it was a much different situation this time around and a less complicated situation to adapt to.
“It’s a lot easier this time to come back from something when you can run around and you don’t have to rest your legs,” Hayward said. “It was just my left hand, so that made it a lot easier.”
Before the injury, Hayward dazzled through the first eight games of the season when he averaged 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists.
Against the Cavs, he didn’t play with the same almost effortless command he had over the opponent during that early-season stretch. Hayward made a couple sloppy turnovers and even had one of the two 3-pointers he attempted clang off the side of the backboard, but that type of play was almost to be expected after a long layoff.
Hayward did get easy baskets at the rim to get himself going and also displayed his high basketball IQ that makes him one of the prime facilitators of the Celtics offense when he executed a perfect give-and-go with Grant Williams for an easy layup.
Hayward’s most impressive bucket of the night came from a play he routinely made in the early part of the season. Hayward took Tristan Thompson off the dribble, stopped on a dime in the paint and seemed to go in a slow-motion for a second as Thompson tumbled on by before hitting a short jumper.
“I thought he was pretty good,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens of Hayward. “I didn’t anticipate much. It hasn’t been very long in the big scheme of things, especially what he went through last time. He got his baskets off cuts and his typical energy plays.”
Hayward wasn't near his typical game shape as he said he was “gassed” after Stevens played him for the full 12 minutes of the third quarter.
But his conditioning wasn’t far off and neither was him play for that matter. Both should come back sooner rather than later, which is a good early Christmas gift for the Celtics and what could be a nightmare for the rest of the NBA.