With a burst of speed, Gordon Hayward left Kelly Olynyk in his trail but, as Hayward stepped into the paint, Miami center Bam Adebayo started shuffling over with help.
A month ago, Hayward probably looks to drop off to a nearby teammate. A few weeks ago, he might have leaped but tried to shy away from contact. On Wednesday night, Hayward absorbed a shot to the head by Adebayo and still muscled home the tough finish as the Celtics salted away a 112-102 triumph in Miami.
As Hayward backpedaled towards the bench following the contact, Kyrie Irving excitedly jumped out of his seat and reached out to congratulate him. This was the Hayward that everyone has been waiting to see since his gruesome ankle injury.
There have been glimpses and small stretches of solid play but, in the six games since returning from a concussion, it simply seems as if Hayward is playing with more aggressiveness and more confidence, building off the steady progress from much of the regular season.
Hayward finished with a team-high 25 points on 5-of-10 shooting in 32 minutes off the bench on Wednesday. More encouraging: He attempted 13 of Boston’s 31 free-throw attempts, making 12 of them.
You’d have to go back to December 2016 to find the last time Hayward generated at least 13 free-throw attempts in a regular-season game. He’d only attempted more than six free throws three times this year, previously topping out at 10 attempts in his 30-point game in Minnesota back in December.
“Trying to get to the line, I think a concerted effort, but also a little bit more and more explosiveness for me,” Hayward told reporters in Miami. “I think doing all the exercises is paying off and just having more and more reps — also just more time from the injury, so that’s all helping.”
For the past six months, we’ve scrutinized all facets of Hayward’s game but especially his aggression towards the basket. Following the ankle injury on opening night 2017, it’s taken time for Hayward to not only trust that ankle and his explosiveness but to embrace absorbing contact.
This isn’t just one solid performance for Hayward, this has been an encouraging recent stretch. In the past six games, Hayward is averaging 15.7 points on 52.2% shooting to go along with 6.5 rebounds and 3 assists over 29.3 minutes per game. Hayward is giving the Celtics a much-needed scoring jolt off the bench, particularly on Wednesday when the team was playing without Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown.
Hayward’s progress clearly isn’t lost on his teammates, maybe because they understand how important he is to the team’s postseason success. Boston’s best basketball, especially against top competition, has come when Hayward has played his best ball. It’s not unfair to suggest that much of what the Celtics will accomplish could hinge on Hayward’s ability to produce impactful nights as we saw on Wednesday.
More than anything, his teammates appreciate the strides he’s made to this point.
“It’s been a trying season for all of us but him, individually, coming back from an injury like he did, it’s well-documented. I think he’s just trying things now, and with more confidence,” said Irving. "Getting into the lane, getting fouled…
“We’re best when [Hayward is] looking for his shot. He's a great facilitator but we need G to score. And I told him that, and I’m going to keep telling to him stay aggressive, be him, and really be that 20-point scorer that he was.”
Irving endured a quiet fourth quarter, hindered in part by five fouls, which forced Brad Stevens to pull him off the floor for a stretch late in the game. It was Hayward and Jayson Tatum who stepped up, ensuring a Heat team fighting for its playoff life never got close again.
Hayward finished with 11 points on 3-of-3 shooting in the final quarter. It was the first time this season that Irving, Hayward, and Al Horford all finished with 20-plus points in a game.
These are encouraging glimpses, the sort that Boston will hope to bottle up and carry into the postseason. It won’t take away concerns that linger from 76 inconsistent efforts to start the year but nights like this show what Hayward and his teammates are capable of.
Boston is simply a different team when Hayward plays with this sort of aggression and confidence.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.