Celtics

Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

BOSTON — With Gordon Hayward set to return possibly as early as Monday night’s game against Cleveland, he’ll be rejoining a squad that’s playing great basketball which has them among the NBA’s top teams.

But here’s the thing. 

Before suffering a fourth metacarpal fracture in his left hand which has been surgically repaired, Hayward and the Celtics were playing the best basketball of any team in the league. 

Can they get back to where they were with Hayward?

If they do, look for Boston to make notable strides in the following areas of play. 

OFFENSIVE OPTIONS

Now keep in mind, even when Hayward was healthy, the Celtics weren’t exactly killin’ the game with a ton of points or red-hot shooting. 

What they did more than anything else was create a pick-your-poison scenario on a game-to-game basis for defenses.

While there’s some element of that still around in his absence, there’s no debate that Hayward’s presence makes Boston a much more dangerous team to defend. 

And upon his return, the Celtics will be even more dangerous, thanks to the emergence of Jaylen Brown, who has been delivering All-Star quality production with Hayward out, along with the solid contributions Boston has been getting all season from Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. 

DEFENSIVE VERSATILITY

The NBA is all about creating mismatches on the floor, so teams with the ability to switch effectively on defense will find success. The return of Hayward gives Boston another body who has the size, strength and mobility to defend multiple positions. 

When he was healthy, the Celtics' defensive rating of 101.5 was the fifth-best mark in the NBA, which was surprising when you consider they lost defensive anchors Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) in the offseason.

Boston’s defensive rating without Hayward dipped to 104.7, which still ranks seventh in the NBA. 

And while Hayward’s defensive ability has been questioned in the past, his defensive rating of 100.6 stacks up well relative to his teammates. 

WING DEPTH

If you want to win in the NBA, you better have wings — and that’s plural, not singular. And the Celtics have more than their share of talented ones, which is why the return of Hayward is so vital to the team’s overall success. 

Hayward has the ability to do many things on the floor, evident by his stats this season which touch on all the key categories. 

In addition to averaging 18.9 points per game, Hayward is also grabbing 7.1 rebounds to go with 4.1 assists per game.

Those are good numbers for sure. 

But what makes the Celtics so dangerous is they have not one but two others delivering similar production or better from the wing position, in Jayson Tatum (21.2 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown (20.0 points, 6.9 assists).

STRONGER BENCH

The Celtics’ second unit has taken its share of hits this season because they don’t score as much as some — OK, most — other reserve groups. Of course that’s partly because Boston has one of the highest-scoring starting fives in the NBA, which means limited opportunities for the backups and thus, less points. 

Because of that, it puts a greater premium on their bench players to come in and impact the game at the defensive end of the floor. 

And the return of Gordon Hayward will provide that group some much-needed depth with what will likely be the return of defensive ace Marcus Smart back to that unit which has been solid this season. 

According to hoopsstats.com, Boston has allowed opposing second units to score 33.4 points per game which is the fourth-fewest allowed in the NBA this season.  

That number will likely take a drop with Smart directing that group more than he is currently. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

On a historic night, Marcus Smart's best moment wasn't any of his 11 3-pointers

On a historic night, Marcus Smart's best moment wasn't any of his 11 3-pointers

BOSTON — The most notable sequence of Marcus Smart’s historic night came after he set a new Boston Celtics franchise record for 3-pointers in a game.

With 36.9 seconds to play and Smart at the wheel of Boston’s frenetic comeback attempt, Brad Stevens drew up an absolute gem coming out of a timeout. Smart, on the sideline opposite the Boston bench, waited patiently for the Suns’ defense to commit, then lobbed a perfect feed towards the rim for a curling Gordon Hayward.

Only Hayward got caught in between a dunk and a layup. He put it off the glass a little too strong and it caught the side rim as Devin Booker scrambled in for the rebound while the entire Garden let out an audible gasp.

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Hayward fouled Booker, then stood paralyzed, like a Fortnite player after a wifi dropout, in the charge circle. While a couple of teammates covered their mouths in disbelief on the bench, Hayward glared up at the JumboTron, hands on his hips trying to process a miss that would have made it a one-possession game.

Standing about 30 feet away, Smart starting an encouraging clap. Then walked all the way to Hayward, who wore a thousand-yard stare. When Smart got close, he offered a couple of encouraging pats on the chest before wrapping his left arm around Hayward then added a couple of backside pats as players finally made their way to the other end of the floor.

"I've been in that moment. I've been there where you miss a crucial play, a crucial bucket, or make a mistake that you think at the time cost the game for you,” said Smart, who scored a career-high 37 points while making a team-record 11 3-pointers during a 123-119 loss.

"But I told him keep your head up. You're OK. You missing that is not why we are down and, if we lose the game, it's not why we lost the game. You're going to get more opportunities and get more wide-open layups. Just knock down the next one.”

We’re admittedly guilty of reflecting too much on last season’s woes but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that it was a year ago this week when, after Boston missed a final shot attempt in Orlando, Kyrie Irving stalked after Hayward, arms out in exasperation, wondering why Irving hadn’t gotten the ball for the final attempt.

Smart, as competitive as anyone in the world, could have been forgiven if he reacted poorly to Hayward’s miss. An impossible late-fourth-quarter double-digit comeback would have been the perfect exclamation point on Smart’s career night. This article would have been all about Smart’s absurd shooting and how he shuffled into Boston’s top 5 in career 3-pointers if the Celtics pull out the win.

Instead, it’s about how Smart’s greatest value is that he just gets it.

This is the part where we’re supposed to lobby for Smart to be named captain of the Celtics. Except it’s not really necessary. Stevens doesn’t love the idea of captains, yearns to empower everyone on the team, and nobody needs to add a “C” next to Smart’s name on the roster printout to know who is the primary leader of this group.

It’s Smart, warts and all. The same guy who ripped off his jersey and stomped off the floor after getting tossed from an unsightly loss to the Pistons is the same guy who knew in the moment on Saturday that he had to lift a teammate up after a stomach-punch sequence.

Smart is the same guy who stood in front of reporters after Saturday’s game, chastised the team’s recent defensive efforts, then wrapped Hayward in a giant bearhug from behind before leaving the locker room.

“[Smart] was just like, ‘Move on, it’s all good, stay with us.’ But in the moment it’s hard to let that one go,” said Hayward. "We needed that bucket for sure. We still had a chance there, but certainly needed that one.”

Hayward, riding a bit of a roller coaster of consistency since returning from a foot injury on Christmas Day, shut his eyes Saturday night with that miss undoubtedly on replay in his mind. But he’d probably be beating himself up a bit more if Smart and his teammates weren’t so eager to let him know that that one miss didn’t swing Saturday’s game.

Smart turned in the shooting performance of a lifetime on Saturday night. The Celtics were playing without Kemba Walker (sore knee) and Jaylen Brown (sprained thumb) and Smart took full advantage of the available shots. He hoisted a staggering 25 attempts, including a team-record 22 3-pointers, but made 13 shots overall including the 11 beyond the arc, besting the team’s previous record mark of nine 3-point makes.

Smart's 37 points also shattered his previous best scoring night — 27 points versus Cleveland in the 2017 playoffs — by double digits. Smart had posted a season-high 24 points in Milwaukee on Thursday night and produced the first consecutive 20+ point nights of his career with Saturday’s outburst.

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In typical Smart fashion, he wasn’t in much of a mood to celebrate after a loss.

"Right now, [the record] means nothing. I’d trade all that in for a win, especially with the way this team has been playing,” said Smart. "I’d rather have the win than the record. I mean, obviously it’s a great accomplishment. It just shows the hard work that I’ve been putting in is paying off.

"But I’d rather trade that in for the win.”

As for Hayward, he finds himself at the center of many fans' frustrations. To some, the late-game miss is only more evidence that Hayward just isn’t the same player, even further removed from his ankle injury. Despite some excellent nights this season, especially before a hand injury sidelined him for a month, some fans are eager for Boston to move on from the Hayward experience.

Frustrations are natural when a maximum-salary player struggles. Hayward certainly hasn’t played with the same aggression lately — at least not consistently — and it was fair to wonder if he was feeling 100 percent healthy.

Hayward admitted at Saturday’s morning shootaround that his foot remains an issue but not one that he believes is contributing to his inconsistencies. When multiple questions asked whether his foot/ankle woes contributed to his key miss, Hayward bristled a bit.

“It has nothing to do with that,” said Hayward. “I missed a layup. So that’s it.”

Some will continue to scream for a Hayward deal, picking out whatever overpriced big man they think will improve Boston’s ability to compete with East rivals Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The fact is that Boston’s best chance to compete this year might hinge simply on keeping its five best players healthy and figuring out how they all work best together.

The Celtics need Hayward. Smart recognized that on Saturday.

Injuries have made everything a challenge lately. A revolving-door starting lineup has hindered chemistry and continuity. This team has needs beyond size and it wouldn’t require moving either Smart or Hayward to obtain the shooting that Boston’s bench so clearly needs. If you want to scream for Danny Ainge to make a move, start there.

A relentless schedule is forcing Boston to address its defensive slippage on the fly. Hayward doesn’t need to make that layup if Boston doesn’t allow Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges to get hot at the start of the game.

The Celtics are in a funk and it’s going to take a lot of effort to pull themselves out of this skid. The schedule remains daunting through the end of the month and the barrage of games will force the team to make tweaks on the fly.

Hayward needs to be better. He knows it. Smart knows that little good could have come from overreacting to a miscue. The Celtics will be better in the long run for the way Smart handled that situation.

It’ll mean a lot more than any of the 37 points he scored on Saturday night.

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What's ailing the Celtics' defense? Here are some theories

What's ailing the Celtics' defense? Here are some theories

BOSTON — Having clawed their way back from 16 points down to make it a one-possession game with a minute to play, the Boston Celtics needed against Phoenix on Saturday what used to be a given in these stressful moments: a defensive stop.

As Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges’ fadeaway jumper in the paint left his fingertips and hung on the rim’s lip for what seemed like an eternity, there was a moment in time when the chances of that ball dropping through the net were just as good as they were for it to roll out. 

It eventually fell through the net, the Celtics went on to lose 123-119, and the team’s defense once again came up short when they were most needed.

In that possession, like so many lately, the Celtics did most of what was necessary. But this team isn’t built to be successful by just doing a pretty good job. 

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The margin for error to be one of the NBA's best teams is razor thin. That's partly why many of their losses of late fall into the good, but not good enough to win, category. 

“I mean, there’s 50 things to do on a possession,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “Right now we’re doing about 46 on our best ones, and we need to do 50.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. 

It’s not like it’s one or two of the same things that are problematic for their defense — which, by the way, not so long ago was considered one of the league's best. 

The Celtics' defensive rating of 105.6 still puts them at the fifth-best in the NBA this season.  But over the last eight games, that shot up to 111.8, which ranks 16th in the league during that span. 

It hasn’t helped that most of the teams Boston has faced lately, have come into the game playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Suns for example, have struggled for most of the season but won three of four headed into Saturday. 

That may be a factor. But players are quick to point out that the bigger issues defensively stem from a lack of the consistency we'd seen earlier this season. 

“Just not really running our system on the defensive end,” Marcus Smart said. “You know we gave up a lot of easy, easy, easy lay-ups at the rim. Guys are supposed to be pulled in and it’s like we don’t know what we are doing out there and that’s a problem. 

"We’re not really holding guys accountable on the defensive end. We can score the ball with the best of them but for some reason we are allowing, when we go in those rolls, we’re missing (shots) to affect our defense.”

Gordon Hayward added, “For whatever reason guys are scoring on us at a high clip so we have to figure what we have to do to shut that down.”

There are ample factors contributing to the team’s defensive struggles of late. Stevens knows what has to get better for his team at that end of the floor. 

“Everything,” he said. “I just … everything. Just every … every single angle you take on a pick-and-roll, how much you get into the body, how much do you chase, how, when do you switch, how high are you as a big, when do you step back, how you guard the down-screen, do you trail it? Do you go under it? Do you meet them on a catch? What do you do?”

For Boston to get back on that track, the jobs to be done lie on the defensive side of the ball. 

“It takes everybody, you know, and it’s not easy,” Smart said. “You know, coming in you’ve got a team that’s really talented. They’re coming in to play and beat you so we got to be on top of our games and we just got to understand that we’re going to have nights where we don’t shoot the ball well but we can’t have nights where we just don’t bring it on the defensive end.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.