The Latest from Priority Sports
The Latest from Priority Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- Three days before his 30-point outpouring against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, Gordon Hayward was red and furious at the Boston Celtics' training facility in Brighton.
The Celtics were embroiled in one of their toughest practices of the season, and they were poking and prodding at Hayward -- "fouling him and s---" as Marcus Morris put it.
"He just got red at one point," Morris said. "He was really upset. He was going really hard."
The catalyst (predictably) was Marcus Smart, according to Morris. The Celtics' chief instigator got tangled up with Hayward, and Hayward was quietly boiling.
The results were eye-opening. Brad Stevens said the practice let him know Hayward had a big performance was coming. Kyrie Irving said he knew Hayward had "that ticker inside him." Morris said Hayward started getting out in transition and dunking in ways the Celtics had yet to see since he joined the team.
"Any time Smartie gets tangled up with somebody, it's good," Morris said smiling.
"I've been waiting to see that side of (Hayward) for a little bit now."
So the Celtics knew a big performance was coming at some point. Hayward notched 14 points, four rebounds and four assists in a blowout win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, which was solid but only somewhat noteworthy.
But when Hayward cashed in his first two 3-point attempts against the Timberwolves -- noteworthy because Hayward had only made 29.3 percent of his 3-pointers prior to Saturday -- something was clearly different.
"I've continued to put in the work," Hayward said. "My teammates found me and I was able to knock down the first couple threes that I shot. When you see a couple go in, it makes the basket look a little bit wider, and they continued to find me down the stretch too for some open ones, and I knocked them down."
That underplays significantly what Hayward has gone through to get to this point. There was the injury itself, and the immediate aftermath -- five minutes of game time followed by a helicopter ride and surgery. There was the rehab -- a long year of repetitive drills and frustration. There was a setback in March, followed by yet more rehab. At least, there were preseason games, but then there were early-season struggles. There was a demotion from the starting lineup to the bench.
And ever so slowly, there were improvements. Hayward began running the second unit -- handling the ball and running the show. He started to get comfortable operating out of the pick-and-roll. He began to get to the rim. He started locking up again defensively.
"This has not been easy for him," Stevens said. "All he's done is grit his teeth, been a great teammate and worked hard. I think there's a lot to be said about that. The year didn't start the way he wanted to. He's not starting. But I think that he has helped set the example for what this team needs to be about and I think hopefully we can build off it."
And finally, there was Saturday -- 30 points on 8-for-16 shooting and 4-for-5 from three, to go with nine rebounds and eight assists. Hayward hit threes. He got to the rim. He got to the free-throw line. The Celtics' 118-109 win was culmination of sorts -- from the outside at least, even if Hayward downplayed its importance.
"It's never good to get too high on the highs or too low on the lows," Hayward said. "So take it in stride, have another good week of practice and recovery, and try to build on this one. Have some consistency."
Consistency is a good message to preach, but we might look back at Saturday's game and realize Hayward undersold its importance. His re-emergence has the potential to be the hinge on which Boston's season turns. Irving and Jayson Tatum have been brilliant at times, and slotting Morris and Smart into the starting lineup was the 5-Hour Energy shot that sparked the Celtics' sleepy offense. But Hayward's jack-of-all-trades skill set is an important connecting piece that turns the Celtics from a good team into a contender.
After Saturday's game, four Celtics soaked Hayward in water and/or Gatorade during his post-game interview.
"Everybody wants to see him come back and be healthy, especially everybody who knows what he's been through and also knows that it was going to be a transition," Stevens said. "But this league doesn't really give you time to transition, because the games come so fast. So it's good to see your teammates do that, but they've done that their whole time here. Again, I hope we can build off it. That's the bottom line."
The next step? Turning something like Saturday's performance into the norm.
"That's just who he is, honestly," Irving said. "It took him a little bit to get his rhythm, honestly, and with the circumstances we have in Boston, we have a lot of talent. That and the pressure of dealing with outside expectations kind of filtered in to what we have going on here. I think we're just tired of that s--- now. Now we're just playing. Gordon's being Gordon now, guys are competing at both ends of the floor."
The initial struggles were always natural, but the part that comes next might be equally so.
"Here and there, he was trying to get back," Morris said. "It's a new normal, a human thing to kind of favor (the ankle) and be wary of it. Now I think he knows he's going to be okay. We're going to see more of the better stuff coming."