Celtics Spotlight: Gordon Hayward ready to regain pre-injury consistency

Celtics Spotlight: Gordon Hayward ready to regain pre-injury consistency

Members of the Celtics organization hyped up Gordon Hayward so emphatically this offseason that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge tried to reel in expectations before the start of the preseason.

Ainge, of course, knows just how heavy the burden of expectations can be after watching the 2018-19 season.

But say this about Hayward, if he’s weighed down at all by the expectations heaped upon him, he doesn’t seem fazed in the least.

Celtic Spotlights: Walker | Smart | Brown

"I don’t feel any pressure,” said Hayward. "The only pressure that comes is just from myself, just trying to help us win games and be who I am.”

It was Hayward who wrote on his blog last month that he’s, "ready to be the player I came here to be.” If Hayward is even close to his pre-injury form, it raises the ceiling on what the 2019-20 Celtics can achieve.

No pressure, Gordon.

It’s a successful season for Hayward if … 

… Hayward plays with the consistency and confidence that so clearly fluctuated last season. There were nights in the 2018-19 season where Hayward was the best player on the court, including in the playoffs against Indiana, and then there were times where his ankle defied him and he struggled to impact the game. Don’t get hung up on the scoring output, especially with the offensive talent the Celtics have. Hayward’s ability to create for others will be as important as creating for himself.

It’s a disappointing season for Hayward if… 

… we’re still talking about the ankle injury — or any new ailment — in 2020. Hayward is sick of answering questions about his rehab and we’re tired of asking him about how he’s feeling. All that goes in the rearview if Hayward consistently plays at a high level out of the gates. 

2019-2020 Outlook

Two years later, it might finally be crazy, G. Hayward has looked really crisp in the glimpses we’ve seen heading into the regular season. Enes Kanter says he should be eyeing a return to the All-Star Game and he’ll have every opportunity to state his case for consideration. Hayward has a chance to re-establish himself as one of the better two-way players in the league, and the Celtics will need his versatility on defense, especially given the departures in the frontcourt.

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Celtics vs. Nuggets odds: Best NBA picks, predictions for must-see rematch

Celtics vs. Nuggets odds: Best NBA picks, predictions for must-see rematch

Through 20 games, the Boston Celtics have proven they belong with the NBA elites.

They'll have to prove that again Friday night.

The Celtics welcome the 14-5 Nuggets to TD Garden, hoping to avenge their 96-92 loss in Denver two weeks ago. The Nuggets have lost two of their past three, but they're still a deep, talented team led by elite scorer Jamal Murray and versatile big man Nikola Jokic.

Who has the upper hand in this clash of NBA titans? We think we have a good read on the situation, and we'll share our take with our moneyline, point spread and point total betting predictions for Celtics-Nuggets, along with two NBA locks against the spread.

(All odds provided by WestGate Superbook.)

Denver Nuggets at Boston Celtics, 8 p.m. ET

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Moneyline: The schedule gods are favoring the Celtics (-160). Like the Heat on Wednesday night, the Nuggets come to Boston on the second night of a road back-to-back. Denver is 6-2 on the road, but it's also 0-1 on the second night of back-to-backs this season. I'll take the C's.

Point Spread: The Celtics would love to have Marcus Smart (questionable with an abdomen contusion) back for what should be a grind-it-out defensive battle. This one will be close, but the strong play of Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker will help the Celtics (-3.5) keep their home winning streak alive and improve to 6-2-1 against the spread at TD Garden.

Point Total: The under seems like the logical play here considering these are two of the best defenses in basketball. But the total is set at 203, and the Celtics haven't scored fewer than 103 points at home this season. If this is a close game as I predict, both teams will barely top 100, pushing the total OVER.

Darren's record picking the Celtics' moneyline, point spread and point total: 28-19-1

NBA Locks of the Night

Washington Wizards at Miami Heat (-10.5): After a grueling back-to-back in Toronto and Boston, the Heat get a home date with the worst defensive team in the NBA. Sharpshooters Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro should have a field day.

Los Angeles Clippers at Milwaukee Bucks (-3.5): What an awesome game between two NBA title contenders. The Bucks didn't see Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last time these teams met, but they also weren't riding a 13-game winning streak. The Clippers are 2-6 against the spread on the road, so make that 14 in a row for Milwaukee.

Darren's record picking NBA locks against the spread: 17-14-1

Forsberg: A year later, these Celtics don't crack from adversity

Forsberg: A year later, these Celtics don't crack from adversity

After the Boston Celtics’ 20th game of the 2018-19 season, Marcus Smart was speechless. And not in the good way.

On that night in late November, the Celtics lost for the fourth time in five games while dropping to 10-10 overall. A smoldering Smart, who had already bristled after a rough road trip out west earlier in the month, considered his team’s general lethargy and fumed, “Until we [change our ways], we’ll continue to get our ass whooped.” Kyrie Irving wondered if the team was near, “rock bottom."

Fast forward a year and, no longer encumbered by the heavy burden of expectations, it’s all sunshine and puppy dogs in CelticsLand. The 2019-20 Celtics are 15-5 and, despite being pegged a Tier 2 team in the East, they have asserted themselves as a legitimate East contender even while playing at less than full strength for nearly the entirety of the season.

And therein lies the biggest difference between last year’s Celtics and this year’s squad. When last year’s team encountered adversity, or things started to go sideways, that group splintered and cracked. When this year’s squad hits bumps in the road, the players stick together.

Take Wednesday night against the Heat as an example. Boston, playing without two starters, fell behind early by double digits. Last year’s team probably would have packed it in; this year’s team ripped off a late first-half run and controlled the rest of the game against a team that had been ahead of them in the standings.

That resiliency is a particularly endearing trait of this year’s team. This year’s Celtics squad competes every night. Take away a jagged opening-night loss in Philadelphia and Boston has stuck close in every other game this season, their other four losses coming by a combined 13 points.

It’s almost certainly unfair that we keep comparing and contrasting last year’s Celtics team to this year’s version. This year’s version has stressed a desire to focus on the now. Alas, the juxtaposition is undeniably stark and you can’t acknowledge where the Celtics are now without remembering what they went through.

Last year’s team internalized their struggles, which caused unnecessary friction and things always seemed tense around the team. This year’s squad gets contributions throughout the roster, celebrates each other’s successes, and then engages in a playful team snowball fight.

How this year’s team reacts to large-scale adversity remains to be seen. Boston’s longest losing streak is two games and, even then, the Celtics came away encouraged with the fight they showed while losing to the championship-favorite Clippers out west and fighting back after Kemba Walker’s injury scare in Denver.

The next few weeks will tell us a lot more about this year’s team and its resiliency. A rematch with the Nuggets looms Friday night and then a challenging Indiana-Philadelphia back-to-back highlights next week’s schedule. A visit to Toronto awaits on Christmas day.

Boston could soon be back at full strength, with Gordon Hayward seemingly trending toward an early return as he rehabs from a left hand fracture. Jaylen Brown has been so good in his absence that the only question is whether there are enough shots to go around for four star-caliber players the way Walker, Hayward, Brown, and Jayson Tatum have all performed this season.

That visit from Philadelphia could help answer the question of whether Boston truly needs to make a move for another big, the sort that could engage in hand-to-hand combat with the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Games against Indiana and Toronto will tell us if Boston is definitely a top-tier team in the East or part of the pack trying to get on Milwaukee’s level.

But even with the question marks that remain, the outlook is a lot rosier than it was a year ago through 20 games. Last year’s Celtics squad actually played their best ball after that 10-10 start, performing so well in the stretch that followed that Danny Ainge kept the roster intact the rest of the season.

The next few weeks will tell us if Ainge needs to make any changes for this year’s squad. We’ll get a better idea of where this team stands. And, maybe most importantly, we’ll see just how long these positive vibes can persist fr the 2019-20 Celtics.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.