The visual brought back the trepidation surrounding Gordon Hayward throughout last season. As he leaped to the bucket late against Phoenix, having broken coverage completely on a side in-bounds, he hesitated midway through his leap and bricked a layup attempt off the back of the rim.
Phoenix led 116-111, securely ahead even with the constant threat of another Marcus Smart three on his record-breaking night. Hayward’s critical miss, while a heartbreaking lowlight, proved inconsequential. It was a bad night all around for Boston after giving up 26 to Mikal Bridges and 39 to Devin Booker.
A film session revealed what became the Celtics’ biggest issue through their worst swoon of the season. Ball pressure, attention to passing lanes, and defensive effort on the perimeter withered through six losses in eight games. The Celtics had propelled to third in defensive rating through January thanks to aggressive defense on the wing. Eight games lowered their rating to fifth, 1.6 points worse per 100 possessions.
”We were not allowing the ball to get to the paint before you feel pressure,” Stevens said after Boston righted itself with two blowout wins against the surging Lakers and Grizzlies. “I’ve said this all year, if (opponents) catch it on the block without resistance. If they catch it inside the three or at the three-point line without resistance, we’re in trouble. Our best rim defense is keeping the ball away from it.”
That was not the case when Bridges securely handled the ball in the corner and blew by Tatum. Instead of addressing that, a question flew from press row reflecting the panic in Celtics Nation over two bad games. Stevens struck back, “maybe we just overreact to a game or two.” And fans surely did, with calls ranging from trading Hayward for another piece to simply dumping him.
That comes as he’s tied for his fourth-highest points per game total (16.1), posts a career high in rebounding (5.9), dishes as many assists as any season in his career except 2013-14 (4.1) and shoots a career-high 56.7 eFG%. His start to the season warranted an All-Star selection and since returning from injury, he’s still shooting 47.7% from the field and 34.8% from three.
Boston, through its 2-6 stretch, gave up less points per possession with Hayward on the court than with Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum playing. Adam Taylor broke down his impact excellently this week, receiving praise from his wife, Robyn, on Instagram.
It’s evident why blame flows toward him. Hayward makes $32.7 million this season, second-most on the team and 15th-most in the NBA. Some don’t deem him worthy of that figure. They forget the concept of sunk cost. Boston signed Utah’s Gordon Hayward and lost him within six minutes of his first regular season game.
Concerning foot pain emerged around the time he broke his hand that he admitted could become an ongoing problem. That’s scary, though complications stemming from what looked like a career-ending injury were expected.
Despite those concerns, Hayward is an immediate asset and in no way a long-term contractual burden. He makes max money for one more season if he opts into his player option. Given his play this season, despite him shooting below 50% in eight of his last 16 games, it’s worth rooting for him to opt in. Quality wing play doesn’t grow on trees and only twelve wings boast better eFG% than Hayward, who ranks 25th in the entire league. Nobody above him is named Brown or Tatum.
Not a tough pill. Every player has been here. He’s a great teammate and a great player and what he does for our team is immeasurable! Love our team! https://t.co/1dnnr2ocXI— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) January 19, 2020
Boston may be struggling to prove itself among the league’s elite this season. If they can’t reach that point, a Hayward trade could benefit its future. However, it would not make the Celtics better right now.