It wasn’t his most impressive play of the night; in fact, it’s one when he fell asleep off the ball and wound up costing his team two points. But if you’re looking for reasons to feel good about Gordon Hayward, seven games into his return from one of the most devastating leg injuries in recent NBA history, you could do worse than his goaltend in the second quarter of the Boston Celtics’ 117-113 win Thursday over the previously undefeated Milwaukee Bucks:
As Hayward guards Pat Connaughton in the left corner, he keeps his eyes trained on Khris Middleton, knowing that if Middleton beats Al Horford, he’s responsible for protecting the rim. Connaughton back-cuts the distracted Hayward; a beat late, Hayward sees it, then sprints under the rim, plants his left foot to stop his momentum, jumps off two feet, and blocks Connaughton’s layup off the backboard. Unfortunately, he gets there a split-second late. Hayward begins to fall awkwardly after spiking the shot, and lands with the full weight of his body on his left foot. He bounces, falls all the way to the court … and then takes the hand of teammate Semi Ojeleye and springs right back up to his feet.
In a vacuum, you wouldn’t even register it; dozens of NBA players have the same sort of fall-down, get-back-up sequence every night. But after what Hayward went through—the horror of 2017-18’s opening night, the surgery to repair a broken left tibia and dislocated left ankle, the months of grueling rehab, a second surgery to remove screws that had started causing him discomfort, the isolation of what must have felt like an eternity away from the game—an uneventful takeoff and landing is no small thing.
What makes it even bigger: It came in the context of Hayward’s best game as a Celtic, one in which, for the first time since his return, he began to look like the All-Star wing to whom Danny Ainge handed a four-year max to help Boston get within arm’s reach of the 18th championship banner in franchise history.
Hayward was confident and aggressive from the opening minute of Boston’s matchup with a Bucks team that has sprinted into the Celtics’ and Raptors’ race for post-LeBron Eastern Conference supremacy. The array of talents Hayward honed in Utah on his way to becoming one of the sport’s best two-way swingmen were on display: the quick trigger coming off high screens and dribble handoffs, the ability to blanket opposing drivers, the strength and physicality to finish through traffic in the paint. Hayward sucked in the defense and set up open shooters—simple one-step-away feeds, cross-court skip dimes, slick bounce passes, the works—while showing off pick-and-pop chemistry with Horford and Marcus Morris.
It was the clearest vision yet of what Boston’s offense could look like with Hayward and Kyrie Irving sharing the ball and pivoting around Horford, and the result was mighty impressive. Boston scored at a rate of 114.7 points per 100 possessions against the Bucks defense, which entered the game allowing just 98.2 points per 100. The Celtics drilled a franchise-record 24 3-pointers on 55 attempts and slowed Milwaukee’s early-season rampage enough to hand coach Mike Budenholzer his first loss with his new team. And while Irving’s 28 points and seven assists paced the Celtics attack, it was Hayward’s efficient and effective work—18 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 3-for-5 from 3-point range, five assists, four rebounds, one block, and one turnover—that kicked Boston into its highest gear of the season, continuing an upward trajectory after a slow start.
After knocking off a year’s worth of rust, Hayward’s workload is increasing—he topped the 25-minute mark for the first time in Tuesday’s win over the Detroit Pistons and neared 27 minutes against Milwaukee. He’s locating his rhythm. Over the past three games, he’s shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from 3-point range, and his per-36-minute production in that stretch—18.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists—resembles his career per-36 averages with the Jazz.
Hayward’s not back at that level just yet, and he’s not quite out of the woods when it comes to his surgically repaired left leg. (“I can feel it right now,” Hayward told reporters after the game. “It’s definitely a little bit sore.”) But like Irving, who needed some time to get into form after season-ending knee surgery last spring, Hayward’s getting closer by the day. The onus, then, turns to head coach Brad Stevens, who has the enviable task of determining the best lineups for this loaded, and finally healthy, Celtics roster.
Thursday’s fourth quarter, which saw Stevens cycle through nine players in search of an answer as Milwaukee cut a 15-point deficit down to a single point with 12 seconds to go, suggests that Boston’s closer to the beginning of that process than the end of it. (That Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart have all opened the season ice cold from the floor only complicates matters.) As long as the Celtics continue to boast the league’s stingiest defense, though, Stevens will have the time to tinker with his armada of game-breakers.
In the meantime, Hayward will get the chance to work his way back toward a new normal, one where the unremarkable things—like having a good shooting and playmaking game against an elite opponent, or just jumping and landing without incident—can finally start to seem unremarkable again.