When the Boston Celtics signed Gordon Hayward during the summer of 2017, this is not exactly what they envisioned. They did not imagine that Hayward would have to go through what is essentially an entire season of rehab re-adjusting to the rigors of 48-minute NBA games due to a gruesome broken leg injury that made even the toughest stomachs turn on opening night of the 2017-18 campaign.
But, that is the situation in which Hayward and the Celtics find themselves in February 2019. Rather than playing in the All-Star Game, Hayward is sitting home trying to think of ways to be more effective over the final two months of the regular season.
However, there is some good news: slowly but surely, Hayward is coming along.
There is no doubt that the 28-year-old was actually going the C’s back earlier in the year, as he simply could not generate any lift on his jumpers or layups and was a clear liability on the defensive end.
But, the last couple of weeks have been a different story.
In seven February games, Hayward is averaging 14.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and four assists over 27.3 minutes per game while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor, 52.4 percent from three-point range and 90.5 percent from the free-throw line.
It’s a small sample size, yes, but this has been Hayward’s most impressive stretch of basketball of the season, as he is starting to show more bounce in his step (as evidenced by a surprising alley-oop slam he threw down against the New York Knicks earlier in the month) and is getting to the free-throw line.
Over his last three games, Hayward has taken 18 free throws, which is more than he has attempted in any three-game stretch this season. In addition, Hayward is starting to hit threes more regularly, as evidenced by his six-triple night in a 26-point performance during the Celtics’ win over the Philadelphia 76ers this past Tuesday.
This is the Hayward that Boston needs over the final two months of the regular season and, most importantly, in the playoffs.
The versatile forward is unquestionably the X-factor for the C’s going forward, as he has the ability to elevate the Celtics from a very good team to a ballclub that can legitimately challenge the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series.
It’s not just Hayward’s scoring that makes him such a valuable piece; it’s his ability to see the floor and create for his teammates coupled with his ability to put the ball in the hoop.
Earlier in the year, Hayward was not much of a scoring threat. Not consistently, anyway. You could afford to let him take a few threes, as his legs just would not allow him to make them on a daily basis.
As a result, defenses were able to play Hayward for the pass, limiting what he could do in terms of facilitating the offense.
But, now that Hayward’s scoring appears to be coming along as his shots begin to fall, opposing defenses will have to respect Hayward as an all-around offensive threat, which will open up the Celtics’ offense entirely.
Hayward’s defensive versatility is also huge. While he has never been an All-NBA type of defender, his length and solid athleticism allow him to guard multiple positions, whether that is small-ball 4s or guards up top.
The more comfortable Hayward gets, the more dangerous Boston becomes.
Think about this for a second: the C’s are 37-21 and have gone 27-11 since their 10-10 start. Up until recently, all of that had come with a compromised Hayward who appeared very tentative and unsure of himself.
Now, Hayward seems to be getting more confident, which should absolutely raise the Celtics’ level of play going into the postseason.
Make no mistake: Boston is going to need an effective Hayward in the playoffs. As impressive as the rest of the roster is, Hayward is still probably the second-best offensive player on the team behind Irving, and a legitimate argument can actually be made that he is the team’s best passer.
A healthy Hayward not only changes the game for the C’s, but it completely alters the NBA landscape, as the Celtics become that much deeper and that much better.
Hayward’s impressive outing against the 76ers on the road was probably his most notable performance of the season, his two 30-point outbursts against the Minnesota Timberwolves notwithstanding.
That could be a sign of things to come, and if his showing for the rest of February is any indication, Hayward could be getting right at the right time.