By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Gordon Hayward made his long-awaited return Tuesday night as the Boston Celtics tipped off the 2018-19 NBA season.
There was some obvious signs of rust, which was to be expected from a player who just missed an entire season. But Hayward was not timid and made the most of his 25 minutes on the floor, finishing with 10 points, five rebounds and four steals in Boston’s 105-87 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Pregame jitters quickly melted away for Hayward, who was introduced in front of Boston fans for the first time since signing a max contract last offseason. A rousing ovation followed, a moment Hayward was sure to soak up. Last year at this time, he was addressing Celtics fans with a pre-taped video from a hospital bed. Tuesday night’s introduction was much, much better.
“It was everything I was expecting when I originally signed here. I had to wait a year for it, but they were amazing,” Hayward said of the Boston fans.
The Celtics played a hype-up video before tipoff, so he inevitably had flashbacks of the devastating leg injury that ended his debut season with Boston just five minutes into his first game. He admitted that the play was on his mind before the game, but it quickly went away once he was finally back to playing basketball.
“It definitely crossed my mind warming up, and running out through the tunnel. Thinking about maybe not doing any lobs or backdoor plays,” Hayward joked. “Sure, it went through my mind. A major part of my life at this point. Tried to just get it out of my head as soon as we started playing. Once you’re out there on the court it’s something that disappears.”
When those butterflies went away, the next task was to make his first regular season shot in a Celtics uniform. He missed a driving layup early in the first quarter, and didn’t attempt another shot until the second frame. But he contributed with a pair of early steals, and once he calmed down a bit, the shots started to fall. He dribbled his way into a 14-foot pull-up from the right elbow to start the second quarter, tying the game at 21-21. He hit his next shot as well, this time from 19 feet out on the left side of the floor.
There were a few Hayward shots that hit the front of the rim, and others that missed completely, but there was no hesitation in his game. He dove for loose balls, fought for rebounds, and drove to the bucket. He finished the night 4-for-12 from the floor, connecting on a corner three to end his evening. He left the floor to another ovation from the Celtics faithful, and gave a wave to show his appreciation.
While his stat line wasn’t up to his normal standards, just finishing the game was much more important to Hayward.
“That was a big step for me mentally,” he said. “It was a big confidence-booster just to finish that first game. Being back out on the court – that was a big hurdle.”
The Celtics will continue to ease Hayward back for the next several weeks, keeping him on a 25-minute limit. He knows that the rust is going to be there for some time and there will be plenty of bumps along the way. But Hayward and the Celtics understand there is no rush at the moment, and they’ll all be patient as he back into the flow.
“Part of it is just having patience and realizing that it’s not all going to come at once,” he said. “I think as long as I can do things when I’m out there on the court that can help us get wins, then I’ll be happy.”
Hayward will return to form sometime in the near future. But for Tuesday night, he was just happy to be on the floor with the Celtics, and contributing to a victory.