Celtics

Hayward starts season on minutes restriction, eager to prove he’s the same player

Hayward starts season on minutes restriction, eager to prove he’s the same player

BOSTON — Celtics forward Gordon Hayward will be limited to 25 minutes of floor time when he returns to a regular-season game for the first time in nearly a year Tuesday in the season-opener against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said that, while Hayward had his best week of practice in the long crawl to opening night, the team will keep him on a minutes restriction for the first couple weeks of the season.

Hayward, who missed all of last season after fracturing his ankle on opening night in Cleveland, played in three exhibition games but sat out the exhibition finale while dealing with a back issue. Hayward admitted he’ll have some natural butterflies for opening night, which will be his first regular-season game in a Celtics uniform at TD Garden — but he’s eager to dive back in.

"Definitely a little anxious, just a little bit nervous. I think that’s natural though,” said Hayward. "Once you get out there and get your blood flowing and get up and down the court a couple times, that’ll go away. Just looking forward to being out there, that’s a big step for me. Like I said in the preseason, too, being out there on the floor after what happened is a big step.”

Hayward is expected to start and, with a fully healthy roster, the Celtics will have plenty of options to fill up minutes while Hayward ramps up his activity early in the year.

While hesitant at times in the preseason, teammates and coaches have raved about the progress that Hayward displayed over the past week, a stretch in which the Celtics purposely went heavy on scrimmage work to get Hayward live reps.

"I thought last week was his best week, as you would expect,” said Stevens. "Obviously his back feels better and a little more comfortable as you move on, so he’ll be a little bit restricted from a minutes standpoint as we progress through this early part of the season, but that’s just to make sure we ramp it back up so that he’s feeling great toward the end of the year and the years beyond.  It’s hard to go from not playing [for 12 months] to playing the schedule that we’re playing.”

Teammate Marcus Smart raved about how Smart looked in recent sessions.

“He started hitting all his shots,” said Smart. "In preseason it just seemed like he couldn’t buy a shot. Everything was on line, it was a little bit short. Got into practice and we starting running five-on-five, and getting to the rim, getting to where he’s supposed to. Those shots that were short are now going in. He’s looking like his old self.”

Added Smart: "He was a little rusty coming in [to camp], and he’s out here dunking the ball off the ankle and everything. It’s good to see that."

Hayward admitted he had a good week and playfully chided reporters about the constant health questions. He’s ready for that storyline to die down as he launches back into action.

"My ankle feels strong,” said Hayward. "I still can tell that it’s the ankle that got hurt, I don’t think that’s going to go away for a little while but continually doing rehab on it, as well as the rest of my body. And some of that, too, is just getting older, you gotta do more and more stuff.”

Hayward said he feels like he’s in good basketball shape [“I feel good as far as cardio and conditioning is concerned”] but admitted he cannot fully simulate what it will be like to be out there playing again.

Especially with the emotions of having missed a full year while rehabbing from the ankle injury on opening night in Cleveland last season.

But he plans to fully utilize all 25 minutes of floor time.

"I’m going to go in and play as hard as I can when I’m out there on the floor,” said Hayward. "That’s something that, as a player, you can’t stand -- minutes and limiting the amount of minutes. I think if you would ask all the players, they’d want to be out there the whole game. I understand, as far as what happened, and then trying to make sure that I’m kinda going at an upward path. First game of the year, it’s the goal, and so I have to accept that. When I’m out there, I’m going to be playing hard, hard as I can.”

Hayward’s biggest motivation: Prove that he didn’t lose anything from being out a year.

"Just internally, proving to myself that I can be the same player that I was,” said Hayward. "I want to get back out there on the court and show everybody what I can do."

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Gordon Hayward recalls rollercoaster Celtics tenure, three years after signing

Gordon Hayward recalls rollercoaster Celtics tenure, three years after signing

It was three years ago today that the fireworks that Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck had previously talked about (and we absolutely loved to talk about over and over and over again), actually came to fruition for the Celtics. 

That's when Boston did what no Celtics team under Danny Ainge’s watch had ever done. 

They went out and signed an All-Star free agent, then-27-year-old Gordon Hayward, who was still in his prime as a player. 

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“I can’t believe it’s been three years already, to be honest,” Hayward said during a teleconference call with reporters on Friday. “A lot has happened for me, for my family.”

It is impossible to look at the Hayward narrative in Boston without delving into the gruesome left leg injury he suffered just five minutes into this first game as a Boston Celtic. 

Once he was cleared to resume playing, there was the usual rust associated with a long layover. But more than the time off, Hayward had hurdles to clear beyond being physically able to return to play. 

For most of his career, Hayward leaned on his basketball instincts when it came to making plays at both ends of the floor. 

The injury changed that. 

Hayward had developed the kind of muscle memory with his game that allowed him to ascend to an All-Star level while in Utah, with play that on many nights looked seemingly effortless. The injury, which sidelined him for the rest of the 2017-2018 season, forced him to work at bridging the divide that now existed between his mind and body as far as what he was capable of doing on the court.

It wasn’t all that surprising that it led to mixed results, with Hayward looking like the best player on the floor some nights and then inexplicably struggling against inferior competition the next. 

And just like fans at times would become frustrated with his inconsistent play, Hayward wasn’t enjoying this rollercoaster of emotions fueled by his up-and-down play either. 

The 6-foot-8 forward has spent his entire basketball career working to strengthen his body to withstand the physical rigors that come with being a slashing, attacking-the-rim wing who can also make teams pay for sagging off him with a mid-range game that can extend beyond the 3-point line. 

But the injury forced Hayward to really work at strengthening his mind, something that he quickly acknowledged as being the biggest takeaway from his time thus far in Boston. 

“For sure I hit a low during my injury,” Hayward said. “And had to work more than ever on that mental side, more than I ever had in my basketball career on that mental side. That’s for sure something that takes work.”

The topic of mental health among professional athletes has gained significant traction in recent years as a discussion which professional players such as Hayward are far more comfortable addressing publicly. 

“For sure the mental side is where I’ve grown,” he said.

And that growth has Hayward in arguably the best position he has been in as a Celtic. 

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While he was initially brought in to be either the team’s go-to guy or next in line, Hayward has effectively settled into more of a jack-of-all-trades role, allowing him to make an impact of significance without necessarily having to carry the team on a night-in, night-out basis. 

He’s averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists this season, his best numbers in those categories since becoming a Celtic. 

Just as impressive has been his efficiency — he's shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from 3-point range this season.

And while he’ll be the first to tell you that his time in Boston has indeed been a rollercoaster of sorts, he has no regrets about his decision to become a Celtic which reunited him with his college coach at Butler, Brad Stevens.

“It’s been some great moments for sure,” Hayward said of his time in Boston. “Obviously some not-great moments with the injury and everything but some great moments. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

How Pacers star Victor Oladipo skipping NBA restart impacts Celtics

How Pacers star Victor Oladipo skipping NBA restart impacts Celtics

The Indiana Pacers' best player won't participate in the NBA's restart in Florida later this month.

The 2019-20 season is set to resume at Walt Disney World Resort, where 22 teams will play eight seeding games before a normal four-round playoffs with eight teams in each conference is played. 

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The Pacers are one of the nine Eastern Conference teams participating in the restart, and in an interview with Shams Charania of The Athletic, Oladipo explained his decision not to go to Orlando.

“I really want to play, and as a competitor and teammate this is tearing me apart,” Oladipo said, per Charania. “I feel like I’m at a great place in my rehab and getting closer and closer to 100 percent. With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set up of the bubble, I just can’t get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing. I have to be smart and this decision hasn’t been easy, but I truly believe continuing on the course I’m on and getting fully healthy for the 2020-21 season is the right decision for me.”

The Celtics and Pacers are not scheduled to play each other in the seeding games phase, which begins July 30. So, how could Oladipo's absence impact Boston? Let's break it down.

Playoff seeding
The Celtics will enter the restart as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 43-21 record. The Pacers are 39-26 and 4.5 games behind the C's. Indiana played well without Oladipo this season, but it's hard to envision a scenario where it doesn't fall to the No. 6 seed during the eight seeding games format. The Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers are tied for the No. 5 seed, and a healthy Sixers team bolstered by the return of All-Star point guard Ben Simmons should finish ahead of Indiana going into the playoffs. The Miami Heat are fourth in the East standings and have a two-game lead on the Pacers. Unless the Heat collapse, they should be able to hold the No. 4 seed. 

Therefore, it's very possible we could see a Celtics vs. Pacers first-round series in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup. In fact, most projection models have the Celtics and Pacers squaring off in Round 1.

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Playoff matchup
The Celtics and Pacers played in the first round last season and Boston swept Indiana in four games. It wouldn't be surprising if the same scenario unfolded in 2020. The Celtics are a deeper and more talented team. They are actually the only club with three players averaging 20 or more points per game. The Pacers have zero players averaging 20-plus points. Boston also ranks higher than Indiana in points scored per, points allowed per game, rebounds per game, steals per game and blocks per game. The Pacers, when Oladipo is unavailable, don't have a go-to scorer who can create his own shot late in games. In the last game the Celtics played before COVID-19 halted the season, they beat the Pacers 114-111 in Indiana. The Pacers nearly pulled off the win late, and Oladipo scored 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting (5-for-7 from 3-point range).

In the overall playoff picture, it's so important for the Celtics to at least finish with the No. 3 seed. This could set up the easiest possible path to the NBA Finals. The Celtics wouldn't have to play the first-place Milwaukee Bucks until the conference finals if they finished as the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. A path to the conference finals that includes a Pacers team without Oladipo in the first round and a tough-but-winnable second-round matchup against the Toronto Raptors is a favorable one for Boston. It's a much better route than having to play the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1 in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup and then see the Bucks in Round 2.