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Gordon Hayward takes another step forward vs. Philadelphia

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Hayward continued to trend in the right direction with 26 points in Boston’s big road win in Philly.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Tuesday night’s matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, Gordon Hayward didn’t have any 20-point performances on the season... sort of. He did eclipse the 20-point mark in two games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but both games jumped into the 30-point category. That changed last night in Philly when Hayward had a game-high 26 points on 8/11 shooting (6/7 from deep), to go along with 4 rebounds and 3 assists. He was confident and aggressive on both sides of the ball, which was exactly what the Boston Celtics needed on a night without Kyrie Irving.

Hayward went through a rough patch in mid-January, which caused plenty of fans and media alike to jump on the 28-year-old’s issues. When Boston lost to the Golden State Warriors on January 26th, Hayward had just 2 points in 22 minutes. In two subsequent nationally televised games against the Thunder and Lakers, he mustered only 3 and 4 points respectively. However, out of context, those games are not indicative of the progress he’s made.

After breaking his leg in last season’s opener, Hayward went through a year-long recovery process that was publicized through his own personal website, Instagram posts, and even a video series by The Athletic. It was a grueling process for everyone to see, which afforded him some patience from the general public. “It’s going to take him some time,” everyone said.

Fast forward to December, and the uneasiness began to set it. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that Hayward wasn’t Boston’s number-two scorer yet, but more so the slow progression of his recovery was framed as one of the things that was holding this talented team back. The results weren’t coming quick enough on the floor, so many people started to freak, but Hayward has been making some great progress over the last six weeks or so, and Tuesday’s win over the Sixers was more evidence of that.

Despite that brief rough patch last month, Hayward has been trending in the right direction for quite a while now. His shooting percentages and points per game have all headed north since late November.

Entering Tuesday, Hayward had nine games of 18 or more points on the season. Six of those performances came against teams with sub-.500 records, which led some outsiders to say Hayward was picking on bad defenses. That wasn’t completely false because he was, but Hayward’s struggle to find consistency was simply more apparent against better teams.

His lack of explosiveness is more likely hurt him against the Warriors and Thunder than the Cavaliers and Knicks. There were flashes, like an 18-point showing in a November win over the Milwaukee Bucks, but they were few and far between. It’s now getting to the point where they’re more and more common.

The Sixers loaded up before last week’s trade deadline, adding Tobias Harris, Jonathan Simmons, and Mike Scott to the earlier acquisition of Jimmy Butler. Despite that impressive group, Hayward was one of the best players on the floor at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night, finishing with a game-high net rating of 12.1 (minimum 14 minutes played).

Hayward’s increased confidence and rhythm comes with an improved three-point game. This was something that was lacking earlier in the season, but seems to be back in Hayward’s repertoire. In six February games, Hayward is shooting 55.6 percent from deep. There was zero hesitance in any of his seven attempts on Tuesday, as he tied his career-high with six made three-pointers. Hayward was hitting off the catch and shoot, off the dribble, and in rhythm in transition. His effectiveness along the perimeter skyrockets when his shot is falling because defenders can no longer sag off of him. This opens the door for so much more flexibility on the offensive side of the ball, allowing more options off pick-and-roll sets, and plenty of actions with Hayward as the primary ball handler.

Here’s a great example of Boston running a high off-ball screen to set up a Hayward three. There’s not many players better at running this action than Al Horford. He hands off to Marcus Smart, sets the screen on Mike Scott, creating space for the hot-shooting Hayward to knock down the shot. The nice thing about this particular set is if Scott goes over the screen to eliminate the space, Horford can roll and Hayward can potentially dish to him. Hayward’s court vision and passing ability is something that’s often overlooked, but quietly important in situations like this one.

This is a perfect example of the flexibility created in these sets. Furkan Korkmaz goes over the Horford screen to stay with Hayward, preventing him from getting a shot off. Hayward then puts the ball on the floor and drives to the paint, drawing Joel Embiid towards him and away from Horford. Once Embiid approaches the ball, Hayward hits Horford with a perfect bounce pass for the open jumper. Again, Hayward’s rhythm and aggressiveness is key here. There’s multiple choices on this set, and Hayward executes option B to perfection. Two months ago, this set probably would have been abandoned because of Korkmaz’s defense. Now, Hayward has options and he’s confident with all of them.

“No doubt it’s something I’m very comfortable doing,” Hayward said about pick-and-roll sets after Tuesday’s win. “And being able to get some reps like that definitely helps out my confidence.”

His aggressiveness was very evident on the defensive side of the ball as well. He consistently clogged Philadelphia’s passing lanes, working with Horford to disrupt any of the Sixers’ halfcourt sets. In situations like this, Hayward is often a step ahead of his match up thanks to his basketball IQ. Add in that element of aggressiveness, and he’s a total headache for any opponent.

On 59 possessions against Philadelphia, Hayward held his match ups to just 9 total points. He was disruptive, aggressive, and confident, which was the perfect remedy off the bench for Brad Stevens. Horford was thrilled with Hayward’s defensive effort following the win.

“He was really good picking his spots,” Horford said. “I was most encouraged by his defense. Defensively this was probably one of his better games of the season. That was big for us. ... Defense has always been an underrated part of Hayward’s game. He’s not Marcus Smart out there, but he can do a good job within the team defense.”

Finding his groove before the All Star break was just what Gordon Hayward needed. Sustaining that rhythm for the stretch run will be just what the Celtics need heading into the playoffs.