INDIANAPOLIS — Better late than never, perhaps. Kyrie Irving (23), Al Horford (21) and Gordon Hayward (25) all broke 20 points in the same game during Wednesday’s win in Miami, and somewhere back in Danny Ainge’s original blueprint, this is how it was supposed to work.
The result sets up a delicious scenario tomorrow night in Indianapolis, with both teams tied for the Eastern Conference’s fourth playoff seed, but more than this, it may be a sign that the Celtics are finally finding themselves.
Some combination of the above three players, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris were expected to be the elements in one of the NBA’s truly superior offensive forces. It’s rarely worked out that way.
But now that Hayward appears to be rounding into form just on time for the post-season, maybe things are about to change. It was the nature of Hayward’s performance, with lots of attacking, 12-for-13 free throw shooting and 3-for-5 3-point efficiency, that points to something approximating the old, pre-injury Hayward.
“Oh, it’s night and day, I believe,” Horford said of the difference in Hayward’s confidence. “I just think that not only is he starting to understand what he wants to do and he’s feeling good, but also us. We are starting to understand how to play with Gordon a little more. When the ball is in his hands, usually good things happen, and we just need him to continue to play with that confidence.”
The same things get said about Horford, who may now have the luxury of playing with another play-making forward.
Irving believes that Hayward is only now starting to feel comfortable inside his own game and body again.
“I think it’s been a trying season for all of us, but him individually, I think coming back from an injury like he did, it’s well-documented,” said Irving. “I think he’s just trying things now and doing it with more confidence, and getting to the lane and getting fouled, really understanding his size again, where he’s 6-foot-9, able to post guys up, able to come off screen-and-rolls and make great decisions.”
Of all Hayward’s skills, his playmaking has probably been the most consistent. But Irving has been waiting for Hayward the scorer to emerge.
“We’re best when he’s looking for his shot. He’s a great facilitator. But we need G to score,” said Irving. “I told him that, and I’m going to keep telling him to stay aggressive and be him and really be that 20-point scorer that he was. That takes a lot of pressure off me where I don’t have to handle the ball as much and I can be kind of floating around the perimeter and cutting backdoor and just doing the little things that I can do to affect the game other than just having the ball in my hands and trying to score.”
One of the most encouraging signs for Hayward, personally, is an increased willingness to challenge opposing big men, like Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside, with his ramped up free throw shooting the main fruit of those efforts. Whiteside ultimately fouled out Wednesday night under this kind of pressure.
“It certainly opens things up when guys are attacking the rim,” said Hayward. “Guys get open threes on the perimeter or slash cuts, things like that. Any time you get easy buckets at the line, easy points, you have to take it.
“Just trying to get to the line is a concerted effort, but there’s also a little more explosiveness for me,” he said. “Doing all the exercises are paying off, also just having more reps, also more time from the injury is all helping.”
His timing has also improved, as evidenced by these increased trips to the line.
“Finishing is something I’m working on a lot, and something I worked on before the injury,” said Hayward. “Some of the timing is there, and it’s deciding when to go up and challenge bigs, when to kick out, different things like that.”
Brad Stevens replaced Irving with Terry Rozier just prior to a defensive possession with 2:40 left Wednesday night, and the Celtics star never made it back in.
“Five fouls. Five fouls and we were up eight or ten and we needed stops at that point, and all I could think of was the foul where (Goran) Dragic drove it 100 mph and drew a foul on Hayward at the start of the fourth,” said the Celtics coach. “They would have tried to go right at that, so if it got back to a five-point game or a four-point game, I would have called a timeout, and we would have gone right back with him. But we needed stops at the end of the game.” … Jaylen Brown has missed the last two games with lower back spasms, and has targeted tomorrow night in Indianapolis for a return.
Asked if Brown could be out for a while longer, Stevens said, “Just got the sense it’s one of those deals that he wrenched his back leaning over. Those things happen, and I’ve been told he’s day-to-day with a goal of playing in Indiana on Friday. He looks good in the pool, but we’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”