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Finally, he can just be plain ol’ Gordon Hayward again.
That should be the big takeaway after Hayward erupted for 39 points on absurdly efficient shooting Tuesday night during Boston’s 119-113 triumph in Cleveland. There’s no need to wonder if he’s “Utah Gordon,” or ask “Is he fully back?” We’re seeing the player the Celtics signed in July 2017 and there’s no need to qualify it any longer.
Hayward (politely) bristled when he was (politely) asked if he was “100 percent back” after Tuesday’s game. “I don’t think about [the ankle],” Hayward told reporters. "I haven’t thought about it for a while. Hopefully you guys can stop asking me questions about that.”
He (politely) scolded his teammates, too, after they continued the trend of dumping fluids on him after a big performance. It was cute — and appropriate — last season in Minnesota but it’s unnecessary now.
After all, he’s just plain ol’ Gordon Hayward again.
Hayward is averaging 20.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists over 34.2 minutes per game. That’s a stat line on par with his 2017 All-Star season. Yes, it’s only been six games but the eye test means more than the sample size at this point. Those numbers will dip down a bit, particularly when the Celtics are at full strength, but clearly Hayward is playing at a level comparable to his pre-injury self.
But instead of wondering if what he’s doing is sustainable or if his confidence will wane like it did at times last season, we can probably just assume this is how things are going to be from now on. That’s not to say that Hayward is going to put up Wilt Chamberlain-like perfect stat lines while going 16-for-16 from inside the arc each night out — in fact, the Celtics’ overall talent will likely cause him to have some quieter nights when others have the hot hand — but Hayward has proven early in the year that he’s going to impact the team positively more often than not.
Hayward is giving the Celtics what they need right now, including a boost on the glass given the team's penchant for small-ball lineups with a still-dinged-up frontcourt. Hayward is averaging a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game (matched by Jayson Tatum) and his efforts pursuing caroms produced maybe the biggest bucket of the night on Tuesday when his late-game putback of a Kemba Walker miss essentially sealed Boston’s win.
Hayward is second on the team in assists (trailing only Marcus Smart) and, while his turnover rate is higher than usual, he’s making the right plays. That’s important when the Celtics are at full strength as Boston must focus on simply finding the open man or riding the hot hand to maximize their collective offensive talents. Hayward, as much as any player on the team, has an ability to create off the dribble then decide whether to seek his own shot or find an open teammate.
Hayward isn’t going to shoot 56.5 percent from the floor overall and 50 percent from beyond the arc for the entire season. The return of Jaylen Brown will bite into the number of shots all the wings are seeing. But just because his stat lines aren’t at glitzy doesn’t mean that Utah Hayward went missing, or that Hayward isn’t quite all the way back.
He’s back. No need for qualifiers. He’s just plain ol’ Gordon Hayward now. And that’s all both he and the Celtics ever wanted.
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