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.
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“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.
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"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."