Celtics

Gordon Hayward leaves Celtics game after taking shot to the head

Gordon Hayward leaves Celtics game after taking shot to the head

BOSTON — Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffered a strained neck running into a hard screen in the first quarter of the victory Saturday over the Atlanta Hawks and was sent home at halftime.

Hayward staggered backward after his head hit hard on the shoulder of Atlanta big man John Collins, who was setting a screen for teammate Trae Young. Hayward initially tried to stay on the court but coach Brad Stevens subbed him out with 3:50 to play in the frame.

Hayward was ruled out later in the first half and Stevens was uncertain about his status moving forward.

“Sent him home after halftime,” said Stevens. “I talked with him at halftime, obviously pretty woozy from that hit. So I don’t have any update on him. But you could see right away that it was quite a hit.”

The Celtics have Sunday off before hosting the Denver Nuggets on Monday night at TD Garden.

Hayward had been playing some of his most consistent basketball of the season lately, pairing with Jaylen Brown to give the Celtics’ second unit a much-needed jolt.

The Celtics’ reserves fumbled away a 25-point lead Saturday before the starters helped preserve a 129-120 victory over the Hawks.

It seems like each time Hayward has built some momentum lately, an injury has set him back a bit. He entered the All-Star break playing good basketball but twisted his ankle while working with teammate Semi Ojeleye before the team reconvened. 

Some of the Celtics’ best basketball this season has coincided with Hayward’s best performances of the season, particularly against top competition. It has seemed as if his play could dictate just how successful this team will be when the postseason arrives.

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Gordon Hayward injury: Celtics star set to return to practice Saturday

Gordon Hayward injury: Celtics star set to return to practice Saturday

It sounds like Gordon Hayward is still ahead of schedule in his rehab from a hand injury.

The Boston Celtics forward has been out since Nov. 9 with a fractured left hand and originally was pegged to return sometime around Christmas Day.

But president of basketball operations Danny Ainge revealed Thursday that Hayward should be back at Celtics practice in a few days.

"Gordon is progressing on the court," Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Toucher & Rich." "He'll probably practice with us this weekend, on Saturday."

While that doesn't mean Hayward's return is imminent -- the Celtics still don't have a target date, per Ainge -- the 29-year-old returning to basketball activities less than a month after his injury is an encouraging sign.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself and get too excited about it, but I think he's progressing really well," Ainge added.

Hayward was doing conditioning, non-contact and even shooting drills as of last weekend and had a meeting with doctors via FaceTime this past Monday.

It sounds like that meeting went well, and if Hayward's first practice goes well this weekend, it's possible he could be back in the lineup by or before Christmas Day.

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 Tommy & Mike have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Why Danny Ainge is sympathetic toward refs in LeBron James travel fiasco

Why Danny Ainge is sympathetic toward refs in LeBron James travel fiasco

The entire world saw LeBron James travel Wednesday night.

(If you haven't, watch it below. It's really bad.)

So, how could the referees possibly miss the call?

That's what many are thinking after Wednesday's Los Angeles Lakers-Utah Jazz game. But Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has a theory that the NBA Referees' Association will appreciate.

"You can see in the clip on Twitter, the referee is not looking at LeBron," Ainge said Thursday on 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Toucher & Rich" during his weekly intervew. "There's no contact between him and the guy that's guarding him, and (the ref) is just looking in another place.

"... It wasn't like they're trying to let LeBron get away with something as much as, nobody at that particular second had their eyes on LeBron dribbling the ball out at half court."

But shouldn't the referee be watching the guy with the ball?

Ainge offered another defense of officials by sharing an example from a recent Celtics game.

"I was showing my wife and kids, we were watching a Celtics game on the road, and Marcus Smart got hit in the face after he released his shot," Ainge said. 

"And I was showing them, 'Look at the referee standing there.' She was looking at the shot up high. You can see her head looking right at the hands to see that Marcus wasn't hit -- which he wasn't -- and then her head immediately went to the feet to make sure that the defender wasn't coming underneath him. So she was concentrating on that while the guy was hitting Marcus across the head."

Ainge's point: Officials can't watch everything all at once, and the result is the occasional missed call.

In James' case, it was an egregious missed call that officials probably should have seen anyway. But as long as those calls aren't made against his Celtics, Ainge can have some sympathy for the stripes.

"I'm not making excuses for the referees," Ainge added. "It's just, refereeing is really hard. ... I think there's a lot of missed calls. That's a nature of our profession and I don't think it's going to change."

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.