Is it safe to hop on the Gordon Hayward hype train?

Is it safe to hop on the Gordon Hayward hype train?

BOSTON — The Gordon Hayward hype train officially departed North Station on June 5 when Danny Ainge, less than a month removed from his team’s disappointing postseason exit, gushed about, “anticipating great things,” from Hayward based on his early offseason workouts at the team’s practice facility.

Since then, that train has become a runaway locomotive, with members at every level of the Celtics organization raving about Hayward throughout the offseason. That train seemingly rumbled off the MBTA tracks outside the Auerbach Center Wednesday and smashed through the walls of Red’s House when Enes Kanter doubled-down on his already bold proclamation that Hayward should be eyeing a return to the All-Star game this season.

"He’s back. He’s 100 percent back,” said Kanter. "He’s going to shock the world this year.”

It’s 100 percent fair to be skeptical. Even as Hayward endured a second surgery on his ankle last summer, there was no shortage of ballyhoo in the ramp to the 2018-19 season — in part because the Celtics were also adding a healthy Kyrie Irving to a team that came four minutes away from a trip to the NBA Finals.

Kanter, regarded as a Hall of Fame locker room guy, also has a long history of talking up his teammates. Heck, he raved about coach Brad Stevens’ basketball skills last month. So if you want to be leery of Kanter’s proclamation, we get it. But know that he’s also practicing what he preaches.

"When Coach puts us in 5-on-5 [scrimmages during training camp], I always try to sneak on Gordon's team,” Kanter told NBC Sports Boston after Wednesday’s morning workout. "When I go against him I’m like, ‘Ugh.’ He’s good, man.”

It’d be one thing if Kanter was the only person gassing up Hayward. But this has been universal. Whispers in the ramp to camp were that Hayward was easily the best player in Boston’s informal scrimmages, though it should be noted that players like Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum were limited participants while recovering from the World Cup grind.

At the very least, Hayward has increased his odds of hitting the ground running this year with his summer efforts.

Hayward put his San Diego residence on the market and bunkered down in Boston this offseason. He spent most weekday mornings working out with the Celtics’ training staff at the Auerbach Center and his dedication to staying close encouraged fellow teammates to do the same.

Stevens, never one to overhype his players, has routinely noted how Hayward has positioned himself for success with his offseason dedication. Asked Wednesday how Hayward has looked at the start of camp, Stevens responded, "The investment has been well-documented over the summer. And you can see it. You can see it.”

That’s about as high of praise as you’ll get from Stevens. Which leads us to believe that, when there’s this much smoke, there’s usually fire (kind of like when everyone kept saying that Irving was definitely bound for Brooklyn).

It’s absolutely fair to want to see it. The Celtics have kept nearly all of their camp activity behind closed doors to this point, with media members seeing only limited shooting drills at the end of morning sessions the past two days. So we’ve been left to get scouting reports from Hayward’s teammates. And, considering there are eight rookies in camp, you can take their views with a grain of salt.

Asked for his opinion of what he’s seen of Hayward, rookie Vincent Poirier, an imported French big man, said simply, “He looks like he never got injured,” then raved about Hayward’s full-throttle mentality in camp.

A real glimpse will come soon, at least by Sunday’s exhibition opener against the Charlotte Hornets. It should be evident quickly whether Hayward is truly playing with the same sort of confidence and ability as the one the Celtics lured away from Utah on a four-year, $128 million contract in the summer of 2017.

Kanter insists his bullishness about Hayward goes beyond just how he’s looked on the court.

“It’s his leadership,” said Kanter. "He already had a lot of confidence in himself but he seems so comfortable out there. Because I played against him last year and then, what I've seen the last two days, how he plays, how he leads, it’s just very special.”

Kanter admitted he could tell Hayward wasn’t quite himself last year, especially early in the season. The two players were teammates in Utah and Kanter saw the early stages of Hayward’s evolution into an All-Star.

Now he wants to see him get back to that level and believes he will.

“He's the type of guy that not only makes himself better, he makes everybody else better around him,” said Kanter. "That’s what makes him really special.”

For his part, Hayward said Wednesday that, “The body feels 100 percent.” Earlier in the week he noted how training in Boston allowed him to build the sort of momentum that had been sapped by the second surgery last summer.

"I have been through a lot — and just in the last two years — and it is exciting to have that full offseason where I can train and get back to what I’m used to doing and not worry about my ankle or health or anything like that,” said Hayward. “Now having two years with the guys and the staff and building relationships and different things like that, it’s definitely better in that regard, too, so certainly I'm looking forward to this upcoming season and I’m ready to get it going.”

Hayward is scheduled to earn $32.7 million this season. A return to All-Star form could leave him with an interesting dilemma next summer, as he has an early termination option. Hayward is set to earn $34.2 million in the final year of his Boston deal but could opt out and seek a more bountiful max-salary deal, now with 10 years of NBA experience.

The Celtics will happily cross that bridge if it means Hayward gets back to his previous form. Getting him there could be the biggest key in Boston outkicking its already tempered expectations this season.

If he doesn’t, the Celtics have some tough decisions of their own about how to move forward. The team has a glut of talented wings and both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum could soon command big paydays. Hayward’s bulky salary could make it enticing for the Celtics to make a big in-season trade — maybe allowing them to jump into the fray if Bradley Beal becomes available, or any other disgruntled star that hits the trade market.

For now, the Celtics would rather just get the Hayward they had before his gruesome ankle injury. They want the Hayward that everyone has been hyping all offseason.

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Forsberg: It's not la-la-land, these Celtics can truly compete with anyone

Forsberg: It's not la-la-land, these Celtics can truly compete with anyone

LOS ANGELES — Marcus Smart took the brunt of the fall on his right hip — the same hip he bruised earlier in this west coast road trip — then practically disappeared from sight while sliding into a courtside announcer's booth.

Most players wouldn’t have even suited up with what Smart’s been dealing with lately but this game meant too much. So here he was, in minute 40 of his night, flailing on the court trying desperately to give his team one last chance to steal a victory.

With the Clippers up three and looking for a knockout punch in overtime, Smart had been hounding Leonard above the 3-point arc, thwarting the simple handoff that Lou Williams was trying to complete. The dance with Leonard eventually extended out near the midcourt logo before Smart swatted away Williams’ pass attempt. Smart took one step, toed the sideline and then leapt, somehow throwing the ball off Leonard’s leg while crashing to the ground so viciously that courtside spectators covered their mouths at the sight.

It was the quintessence of Smart. And maybe these 2019-20 Celtics, too. This Boston team seems to have dug into the archives and emerged as the scrappy us-against-the-world hoopsters that previously typified the Brad Stevens era.

Smart’s hustle got them one final gasp but Kemba Walker’s 3-point offering got blocked by Leonard at the buzzer as a finally full-strength Clippers squad emerged with a 107-104 overtime triumph at Staples Center.

Smart, an ice bucket dispatched from in front of him, had a quick huddle with trainers after the game, then slipped on a pair of basketball shorts bearing his name and number and stepped in front of the cameras to offer a declaration.

"We believe truly that we can compete with anybody in this league,” said Smart before stressing how every possession matters and lamenting how Boston let a double-digit lead slip away.

"They’re really good, and we’ve just got to be a little better.”

Rarely will we buy the oft-floated notion that a team can find positives in a loss. No, wins are the goal in this league. But lingering behind the obvious disappointment that Celtics players expressed after Wednesday’s game was an understanding that they just went toe-to-toe with the league’s title favorite and nearly toppled them.

Or, as Smart told it, “We shot the ball very poorly, our defense wasn’t great, but we still were in the game — plain and simple. Clean up a couple things and it’s probably a different outcome and we’re talking different about what happened tonight.”

The Celtics might have actually learned more about themselves in this game than most nights during their double-digit winning streak. This game had been dubbed a measuring-stick game and, downplay it as the teams tried, Boston certainly seemed to get a better gauge on where it stands with Wednesday’s tilt.

The Celtics realized that Jayson Tatum is a bonafide late-game killer. Tatum, already building an impressive resume of crunch-time heroics this season, left Paul George crumpled on the Staples Center court with a step-back move before hitting an overtime-forcing 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds remaining in regulation.

Tatum finished with a game-high 30 points despite the fact that the Clippers swarmed him with the trio of Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley. But Tatum still nearly willed his team to a win.

"I’ve always looked up to Kawhi and PG. Especially PG, that was one of my favorite players,” said Tatum. "This is the opportunity you look for, especially the bright lights, big stage, you don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them that you belong out here and just earn their respect.”

The Celtics learned yet again that Smart is the heart and soul of this team. He not-so-subtly hinted on Wednesday morning that the Clippers showdown was all the reason he needed to duct tape his battered body together and play through those maladies. He spent the night hounding Leonard, George, and Williams. What’s more, Smart logged 40 total minutes, seconds less than team-leader Tatum, and chipped in 15 points on 7-of-20 shooting. That he took more shots than Walker (17) is surprising and Smart’s 3-point shooting remains in a mini funk (1 for 11) but he made multiple plays in crunch time that at least gave Boston a chance to steal the win.

The Celtics learned that they can be competitive with an elite opponent even when Walker is off his game. Walker made only 4 of 17 shots for 13 points. He had nine rebounds but committed six turnovers over 38:44. Jaylen Brown had a poor shooting night as well.

"I just made a lot of bad decisions tonight,” said Walker. "I've just got to be better at the end of the day, be better for my teammates. But we played hard. We did everything we can do to still stay in the game and try to win the game but, as an individual, I definitely would love to have been better for my teammates.”

The Celtics learned that their big-man issue might not be as pressing as some make it seem. Daniel Theis continues to give this team solid minutes. He’ll land in the highlights because Leonard put him on a fourth-quarter poster but Theis grabbed 14 rebounds including seven on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive.

It was fair to be skeptical of Boston's potential before the LA visit and now it seems safe to suggest that Boston might just be a legitimate threat to top-tier East foes Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

These Celtics have heart. They have grit. They don’t have a very big margin for error but, the way they play, they won’t ever be out of a game. Yes, like Smart said, this team truly can compete with anybody in the league.



Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Celtics-Clippers Instant Overreactions: C's need more out of Kemba Walker in first half

Celtics-Clippers Instant Overreactions: C's need more out of Kemba Walker in first half

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers both were slow out the gate on Wednesday night, but they ended up putting on a show.

It was the Clippers coming away with the victory in an overtime thriller, 107-104. Jayson Tatum starred for the C's and drilled a clutch 3-pointer to force OT, though Boston just couldn't finish the job as a poor shooting night ultimately cost them.

Here are three instant overreactions from the Celtics' loss, which brings them to 11-3 on the season.

1. Kemba Walker needs to get going in the first half.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Walker has been excellent to begin his Celtics career, but slow starts have been an issue. That was the case again in Wednesday's contest as in the first half he was just 1-of-7 from the field with three points.

Usually, Walker's huge fourth quarters make up for his first-half woes. This time, it didn't get much better for him as he finished with 13 points (4-for-17 shooting) and six turnovers, including a critical one with 20 seconds remaining in the fourth.

Don't panic about Walker or anything. It'd just be nice to see more dominant performances from start to finish out of the C's star guard.

2. Brad Wanamaker is the real deal off the bench.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Wanamaker has come up big off the bench for the Celtics so far this season, and Wednesday's win marked his most impressive performance yet.

The second-year pro out of Pittsburgh finished with 14 points, trailing only Jayson Tatum (30) and Marcus Smart (15) in scoring for Boston. He also added five rebounds, three assists, and a steal in 27 minutes.

NBC Sports Boston's own A. Sherrod Blakely saw Wanamaker's big night coming:

3. Time to worry about 3-point shooting woes.

Verdict: Overreaction

The Celtics went a putrid 1-for-18 from 3 during the first half with the aforementioned Wanamaker being the only C's player to drill one from beyond the arc.

They finished 12-for-45. Definitely not ideal, but bouncing back to hit a few clutch shots after that abysmal first half was encouraging. Just take this one by Jayson Tatum for example:

Shooters shoot, and plenty of big shooting nights lie ahead for this 3-point heavy Celtics squad. Plus, the fact they were even in this game with such a horrendous offensive night speaks volumes.

Next up for the Celtics is a matchup vs. the Denver Nuggets on Friday night.

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.