BOSTON — When Gordon Hayward went up to attempt to block a layup attempt by Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton midway through the second quarter of the Celtics’ 117-113 victory at TD Garden, it looked like simply one moment among many in what easily was Hayward’s best game of the young season.
But after Hayward was called for goaltending on the play, he landed fully on his left leg — the same one he suffered a gruesome injury to last season just six minutes into his Celtics debut, costing him the remainder of the year. Unlike that play, however, Hayward on Thursday night felt only a momentary flash of pain — and then got up and kept playing.
By the end of the game, he’d not only put up an impressive stat line — a season-high 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting overall, including 3-for-5 from 3-point range, plus four rebounds, five assists and a block in 27 minutes — but he’d also checked off an important box in his attempt to return to his pre-injury level of play.
“I can feel it right now,” Hayward said afterward. “It’s definitely a little bit sore… something new that I haven’t done in awhile. Those are things I just have to work through, maybe some scar tissue that I can grind out a little bit. It did feel a little bit sore, but I think it held up just fine.
“I have to get knocked down. I have to land on that one foot a little awkwardly, just so mentally I know I can do it, but also physically I can hold and be strong.”
This was a night that not only saw the Celtics finally break out of a sluggish start to the season offensively in a big way — they went 24-for-55 from 3-point range as a team, setting a franchise-record and coming within one triple of tying the NBA record as a result — but also saw Hayward give Boston glimpses of what he can do when he’s right.
Hayward opened the scoring for Boston with a 3-pointer, then followed that up with a block on a drive by Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon and a driving layup against him at the other end. It was a sign of things to come for Hayward in a game that saw him show the kind of ball-handling prowess that gives the Celtics another option on the perimeter to create shots. That, in turn, allows Kyrie Irving, who had a second straight strong shooting game with 28 points on 10-for-20 shooting, including 6-for-12 from 3, to go with seven assists, to hunt for shots off the ball.
“It started off with a good start,” Hayward said. “Just was out there competing, playing … I’ve said it before, but game by game there’s different things [I’m improving on]. I’m getting more and more comfortable. Had some open looks from three that were good, and was able to knock them down, and tonight was good for me.”
After being without Hayward for all of last season, and getting used to having him back out on the court so far this year, Boston will welcome the opportunity for him to get used to playing with his teammates, and potentially giving them the added dimension they need to take on the league’s elite deep in the postseason.
The Celtics began to get a taste of what that could look like against the Bucks. All five starters — including Semi Ojeleye, who replaced injured guard Jaylen Brown (sore right foot) in the opening lineup — finished the game in double figures, while Marcus Morris added 17 points off the bench. Just as important, though, was having Irving, Hayward, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum each finish with at least four assists.
For a team that can struggle at times to create shots at the rim — and isn’t going to make 24 threes, or attempt 55 of them, on a regular basis — having multiple players create open looks for their teammates will be a crucial part of improving Boston’s offense, which came into Thursday’s game ranked 28th in the NBA, moving forward.
“Well, I mean all those guys can make plays,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Al at the top of the key allows us to get in more of our cutting and our motion-type actions, which I really like, and we did a good job of that when we went on that little run in the fourth.
“You’ve got a bunch of guys who can play up there and I think Gordon’s really good off pick-and-rolls. Obviously, he’s a great passer off of those, and so we’ll just keep feeding all those guys in those different spots. And as the season goes along and I get more comfortable with the team we’ll add more to try to take advantage of that.”
In the meantime, Hayward and the Celtics are about to embark on a five-game road trip, their longest of the season. It will begin with a homecoming for Hayward in his native Indiana against the Pacers — only for him to make a far-less hospitable return to Utah next Friday night, where he will play against the Jazz, whom he left as a free agent in 2017, for the first time since he did so.
“I had great years in Utah,” Hayward said. “I thank the Jazz for everything they did for me in my career. I was really looking forward to last year. Obviously that didn’t happen, but it will be a good game. They’re a good team.”
When asked how bad the booing might be, Hayward smiled and said, “It’s been a year, so hopefully not as vicious a booing, but I’m sure I will get booed … It is what it is.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to expect. Hopefully we get a win.”
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