Hayward's big night a reason to celebrate after tough start for Celtics


The six black jerseys stealthily swooped in behind Gordon Hayward with perfect coordination. Hayward, fresh off his best game in a Celtics uniform, was downplaying his big night in his walkoff interview with NBC Sports Boston, but his teammates knew this was a moment that required celebration.

So, in unison, the sextet of Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Brad Wanamaker, and Al Horford dumped cups of water over Hayward’s previously undisturbed hair and he stumbled forward in blissful surprise. It was the sort of moment that would melt the heart of the most Grinch-iest of Celtics fans, even after the team’s maddening start to the season.

Hayward, 13 months removed from the horrific ankle injury that cost him nearly all of his 2017-18 season, produced a swatch of season highs while putting up 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists during Boston’s 118-109 triumph over the Timberwolves. He became the first Celtics player in team history to hit those marks in a reserve role, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

And then his teammates gave him a celebratory bath.

“It feels great,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston’s Kyle Draper while water dripped from his hair. "It feels great, man.

"I’m still not there yet. I’m trying to use all these games as building blocks. I think my confidence is slowly coming along, feeling more comfortable with my teammates, too. It’s never good to get too high on the highs, too low on the lows.”


But this high could not simply be glossed over. Not after what Hayward had been through. There was the lengthy rehab with an unexpected second surgery that left him searching for signs of his former self. As Boston’s first unit routinely sputtered earlier this season, it was Hayward that took much of the blame and eventually shuffled to a reserve role.

Hayward has played some of his best basketball over the past seven games since the move but nothing like what we saw on Saturday night. Hayward connected on 8 of 16 shots, including 4 of 5 3-pointers. He became the first Celtics player in more than a year to shoot double-digit free throws, making all 10 of his attempts on Saturday.

And it was Hayward hitting the game-sealing dagger late in the fourth quarter, the sort of 3-pointer that has so routinely defied him this season.

Before his walkoff interview was over, Marcus Smart, who had been doing other media chores at the opposite end of the court, interrupted to excitedly congratulate Hayward, who smiled wide again.

“I love it. That’s what’s it’s all about,” Hayward said of his teammates’ joy for him. “It's all about the team.”

For a Celtics squad that had endured maddening frustrations throughout the first quarter of the 2018-19 season, Hayward’s performance brought a joy that has often been fleeting this season. It helps that Hayward’s big night came at the end of one of the most encouraging stretches of the season — and before a rare four-day break in game action — allowing the team to savor these good vibes.


But the moment truly resonated because of all that Hayward endured to simply get to this point.

"This has not been easy for him,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters. "All he’s done is grit his teeth, been a great teammate, and worked hard.”

Hayward’s big night could also serve as a galvanizing moment for a team that struggled to figure out why exactly things hadn’t clicked earlier in the season.

A recent lineup change that moved Smart and Morris onto the first group has given the team a jolt. But Hayward reverting back to “Old G” would give this team a lift like nothing else. And maybe that’s why teammates were so excited by what they saw on Saturday.

Stevens enjoyed the camaraderie. 

“If you don’t get there as a team, you’re in trouble,” said Stevens. “That’s good. Everybody wants to see him come back and be healthy, especially everybody who knows what he’s been through and knows that it was going to be a transition. But this league doesn’t really give you time to transition because the games come so fast. So it’s good to see your teammates do that. Again, I hope we can build off of it. That's the bottom line.”


From the top of the roster to the bottom, there was genuine excitement for Hayward. Kyrie Irving, who has been both Hayward’s biggest supporter and chief motivator, said he could tell something like this was coming after Wednesday’s practice and that’s why he gave Hayward a pep talk about being more aggressive.

“Gordon just being himself,” said Irving. “I’m proud of him.”

The Celtics, of course, cannot relent despite all that went well this past week. Boston still sits sixth in the East and 6.5 games back of the conference-leading Raptors. There’s still a hole to dig out of after an uneven start to the season.

Hayward was adamant that he’s still got room to grow and he won’t get complacent with one big night. Irving said Celtics players need to build off the big offensive performances from the past three games.

“We should have fun kicking people’s ass,” said Irving. “There should be no excuse for our group to not play at a certain type of level that we expect from ourselves and what our coaches expect from us. There's no more excuses for us at this point.”

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