Celtics

Celtics

BOSTON — Gordon Hayward was beside himself after fouling Sacramento’s Buddy Hield on a three-point attempt with the Celtics clinging to a three-point lead with seven seconds to play. 

As it turned out, that was plenty of time for Hayward to make up for the miscue as he drained a baseline, go-ahead-for-good jumper with two seconds left that would ultimately be the game-winning shot. 

“Had to make up for the dumb play I had right before that,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston moments after the win, which was punctuated by a Gatorade splashing from teammates Daniel Theis and then-Celtic Guerschon Yabusele. 

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In many ways, that seven-second sequence on March 6, 2019, symbolized not only how Hayward’s time in Boston has gone — a not so great start followed by a much better finish — but also where it was trending before the NBA season was paused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hayward was playing some of the best basketball of his career, tallying 24 or more points in his final two games, which was only the second time in his Celtics career he scored at least 24 points in back-to-back games. 

His understanding and ability to successfully execute whatever the Celtics needed from him in order to win was trending towards muscle memory status before the league’s hiatus, which began last month. 

For now, both the season and Hayward’s role going forward are very much in limbo. 

The 6-foot-8 forward can hit the free-agent market this summer or return to Boston next season and play out the final year of the four-year, $127.8 million contract he signed in 2017. 

 

While his camp will at least consider the possibility of playing elsewhere — where he might have a more prominent role and be armed with a multi-year deal — a more likely scenario for Hayward, in part because of the uncertain economics of the NBA in a post-Coronavirus era, is to play out his final year in Boston, which is worth $34.2 million, and hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2021.

There's one thing we know for sure about Hayward. 

His time in Boston has been filled with lots of highs and lows, with the former taking center stage from the very start of this season.

OPENING NIGHT AT PHILADELPHIA

Hayward found himself in a number of different roles in his first two seasons in Boston, roles that for the most part were unfamiliar to him. 

With the Jazz, Hayward was the face of the franchise. But on the eve of his third season in Boston, it was clear that Hayward’s place in the team hierarchy wasn’t going to be quite as prominent as he was used to. 

That doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact, which he did in Boston's 107-93 opening night loss to the Sixers. 

In that game, Hayward had 25 points on 8-for-15 shooting. 

But more impressive in that game was Hayward driving into the paint 18 times, more than twice as often as he attacked off the dribble in any game the previous season. 

It was one of the clearest signs we had seen that he was mentally past the ankle injury that robbed him of most of the 2017-18 season.

“I feel good. My confidence is pretty high right now,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston at the start of the season. “It comes from the reps; it comes from the summer. I feel good, I feel great.”

So did the Celtics, as they raced out to a strong 7-1 record with Hayward in the starting lineup. (He only made 18 starts all of the 2018-19 season).

In those eight games, Hayward was indeed among those talked about early on as a potential All-Star. He averaged 18.9 points, 4.1 assists and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 55.5 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from 3-point range. 

But the good times for Hayward and the Celtics, much like the current state of the NBA, took an unexpected pause. 

INJURY DERAILS PROGRESS

In a 135-115 win over San Antonio on Nov. 9, 2019, Hayward had to leave the game shortly before halftime with what turned out to be a left-hand fracture that cost him the next 13 games. 

 

While the Celtics went 9-4 in his absence, there was no mistaking Hayward’s versatility and ability to impact the game in several areas was missed. 

Upon his return, Hayward continued to deliver strong numbers for the Celtics at a time when Kemba Walker’s “load management” was starting to take shape along with the growth and development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who were both squarely in the conversation to be first-time All-Stars. 

Walker’s role as the team’s top scorer remained alive and well, resulting in him being chosen by the fans as an All-Star starter. Meanwhile, the coaches chose Tatum as an All-Star reserve while Brown was widely viewed as one of the league’s up-and-coming talents. 

As for Hayward, he continued to be a below-the-radar talent who was starting to look more and more like the All-Star he was in his final year in Utah as the Celtics inched closer and closer towards the end of the regular season and the playoffs. 

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FINISHING STRONG

As much as fans and the media to some extent harp on what Hayward used to do with the Jazz, he knows better than anyone that the role he has to play in Boston is significantly different than the one he had in seven seasons in Utah. 

“It’ll never be the same as it was in Utah,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston. “It’s a new system here, playing with different guys, doing different things. But I feel good, I feel great.”

And it was showing more often as we entered the latter stages of this season. 

In the 45 games Hayward played this season, he shot a career-best 50.2 percent from the field and a shade under 40 percent (39.2 to be exact) from 3-point range while averaging 17.3 points, 4.1 assists and a career-high 6.5 rebounds per game.

And in March, the final month of the season before it was suspended indefinitely, he averaged 19.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists. His numbers in the last full month of the season, February, were strong as well (16.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game). 

All promising numbers that certainly breed confidence for a player and a team in a season each would agree hasn't gone as planned. 

But considering where Hayward is now as a player and where the Celtics are as it relates to the rest of the NBA, his potential as a difference-making, high-impact performer in Boston is one of the few things the Celtics can feel confident will be on display when — and in whatever form — the season resumes.