BOSTON — Marcus Smart was practically glowing as Gordon Hayward made his way towards the Boston bench but Smart was also devilishly scheming. As fans at TD Garden delivered a standing ovation for Hayward’s 35-point performance last week against the Timberwolves, Smart decided to show his appreciation for Hayward’s big night in his own unique way.
So as Hayward reached the Boston bench, Smart, a wide smile on his face, extended his left hand to Hayward’s famed locks and gave them an aggressive tousle. Rookie Robert Williams, approaching from the opposite side, used his long reach to further dishevel and, before Hayward could get his hands up in a defensive position, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum got a quick mop shake as well.
"One thing Gordon doesn’t like is his hair getting messed up, so I try to mess his hair up real good and get a smile out of him,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston after the team’s offday workout Sunday. "Gordon’s a real low key guy, doesn’t say much, doesn't really talk much, real quiet. So to put a smile on his face, it’s good for us.
"We get caught up in this game and the serious moments. But we’re out here doing what we love to do so we have to be able to laugh and smile a little bit.”
As Hayward has searched for his old form this season, it’s hard not to see how badly his teammates want him to succeed. It’s why nearly a third of the roster rushed back onto the court in Minnesota in December to celebrate Hayward's first 30-point game since his ankle injury by dumping water on him during a walkoff interview. It’s why Horford and Guerschon Yabusele reprised those roles after last week’s win over the Timberwolves, dumping water on Hayward’s head as he did another on-court interview.
What’s maybe even more noteworthy is what happened on Friday night. Hayward put together another solid outing, this time flirting with a triple-double while putting up 16 points (albeit on 15 shots), 11 rebounds, and 8 assists over 30 minutes. When he walked to the bench following his final shift, no one lunged for his hair. There were high-5s and some playful laments about how he barely missed his first career triple-double. But nothing to suggest that Hayward did anything that wasn’t now expected from him.
For the first time this season, Hayward could have a solid night and it wasn’t a big deal.
But it kinda was. Because it’s been a while since Hayward has been able to put together back-to-back quality outings. Consider this: Basketball Reference tracks a metric called Game Score, originally created by Grizzlies VP of basketball operations John Hollinger, that attempts to assign a singular value to a player's performance. Game Score typically ranges from roughly 10 (unremarkable) to 40 (outstanding).
It’s a noisy metric and not one that should be the ultimate judge of a player’s performance. Still, it’s somewhat telling that Hayward had finished with a game score north of 12 just five times this season entering last week.
Now he’s put up two solid numbers in consecutive games — a whopping 29.4 in the Minnesota game (second best this year behind only the other Wolves game) and a 16.3 against Dallas — delivering a glimpse of the consistency that has been somewhat fleeting this season.
Paired with the defensive contributions that the box score can’t always quantify, it’s a signal that Hayward is maybe starting to turn a corner a bit and his teammates recognize it.
"I’m ecstatic for Gordon. I think we all are,” said Smart. "We’re excited to see him out there and we’re really just glad to have him back on the court. But him feeling right, feeling good, and seeing him comfortable is something we needed as a team and for him as an individual.”
In order for the Celtics to be truly great this season, they need Hayward to be a key contributor. While his defense and playmaking have been particularly crisp in recent weeks, his offensive struggles — and that of the units he’s been paired with much of the year — left him drawing the ire of some Celtics fans who — in instances like Hayward’s scoreless night in San Antonio last week — were eager to point out that his production hadn’t been in line with his team-high $31.2 million salary.
Hayward would be the first to tell you there’s still a long way to go to get back to where he wants to be. Despite his strong play in the last two games, the Celtics were actually outscored by a point during his 62 minutes of total floor time (the only player on the roster in the negative in that span and Boston was a plus-35 when he was on the bench).
But progress is progress and Hayward’s teammates are excited by what the eye test is telling them about the way Hayward is trending.
"He’s just playing free, he’s playing free,” said Irving. "You want him keeping the same energy, the same motivation, the same intensity. That’s who he is, we just need him to be aggressive on both ends of the floor. Offensively, manage our offense and create opportunities for himself first and, as he does that, the defenses will kind of collapse on these drives as he’s done so far. We’ve seen him come into the lane and throw lobs and throw great passes but now when he’s scoring he becomes that much bigger of a threat.”
A. SHERROD BLAKELY
Hayward has been such a good facilitator and, combined with maybe some lingering hesitation about whether he can trust his own explosion to get past defenders going at the basket, he’s often defaulted to creating for others. Few on the team, outside of Irving, are as good at hitting the roll man in pick-and-rolls or kicking out for an open 3-pointer as Hayward. That those he’s typically been paired with on the second unit have struggled with their own offense hasn’t always helped turn that playmaking into assists.
The Celtics' offense is trending upwards in recent weeks, impossibly climbing into the top 10 in offensive rating after a miserable start. For a team that struggled mightily to generate consistent offense when Irving was off the court, it’s an encouraging sign, particularly when Hayward and the second unit can sustain the offensive production.
Boston needs Hayward to continue to search for his individual offense. They need him to be confident and trust that ankle can still propel him past defenders and he can finish near the rim.
There are going to be quiet offensive nights for Hayward based on the amount of talent the Celtics have and their ability to spread the wealth. The team’s positive net rating with Hayward on the floor confirms that, even when he’s struggled with his shot, good things are still happening. But if this team is to be great, Hayward must get to the next level, at least by the time the playoffs arrive.
Even if that means a few more hair scruffs from Smart and Co. along the way.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.
NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE