By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Celtics have won two games in a row. That is encouraging.READ MORE: 2 Children Removed From Water After Dive Team Called To Search Brockton Park
The Boston Celtics won both of those games on the road. Likewise, encouraging.
The Boston Celtics, on consecutive nights, have blown out the defending NBA champions and held off a push from a Western Conference team scrapping for a playoff spot. Once again, encouraging.
But of all the positives to emerge thus far from the first half of the Celtics’ four-game West Coast swing, none comes close to the surge from the man sporting No. 20 in green. (And white.)
Yes, while the wins are nice, the reality is that the Celtics don’t have much opportunity to climb very far up the Eastern Conference standings. Maybe if they get really hot, they can vault themselves to third place. But most likely, they’re looking at either the fourth or fifth seed, with the only real benefit of finishing in the higher spot being home court advantage in the first round.
Really, if the Celtics can accomplish anything over the final stretch of the regular season, it’s establishing a brand and style of basketball that will serve them well in April and beyond. And a lot of that depends on whether Gordon Hayward can become a regular contributor off the bench.
In that endeavor, Hayward’s made some serious progress over the past two nights.
That much was obvious, of course, when Hayward went the length of the court in the final seconds of Wednesday night’s win in Sacramento to drill the game-winning shot with 2 seconds left on the clock.
Wednesday may not have been a banner night overall for Hayward — 12 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists — but in a game where Kyrie Irving was sitting out, Hayward came through when needed in a huge spot to prevent the Celtics from enduring a major letdown following the win in Golden State on Tuesday night.
And make no mistake, had Hayward missed that shot, even Brad Stevens had little faith that his team had enough energy to pull off an overtime victory.
“If that thing goes to overtime,” Stevens said after the 111-109 win, “I don’t know if we have enough juice.”
Marcus Morris shared the sentiment.READ MORE: Rally-Goers March In Copley Square, Calling For Peace In The Middle East
“None of us wanted to go to overtime,” Morris told reporters in Sacramento.
Hayward made sure that Morris and the rest of the Celtics didn’t have to play any extra basketball.
The game-winner came a night after he exploded for a team-high 30 points, a team-high seven rebounds, and a team-high plus-32 in Oakland against the Warriors. It was just the third time all season that Hayward hit the 30-point mark in a game, but this one required him to be on the floor for less than 28 minutes.
Hayward followed up his first 30-point performance of the year with a 2-for-6 shooting night for eight points. He followed up his second 30-plus-point performance (his best game of the year, against Minnesota on Jan. 2) with a near-triple-double two nights later against a Dallas.
This time, Hayward followed up dropping 30 by hitting the biggest shot of the night and lifting his team when needed.
That’s the part that, if you’re the Celtics, has to be the most encouraging development of the current trip.
“Man, it shows you the confidence he still has,” Morris said of Hayward. “He’s building, he’s building, and a lot of people have been trying to write him off, saying he’s not going to be what he was. As a player, that’s tough, man. He’s done a great job of bottling all that in and continuing to play and continuing to perform at a high level for us. Just hope that it continues to go, and he continues to grow and continue to get better, man. And we’re gonna ride with him.”
Of course, any discussion about a surge in production from Hayward must include the note that he’s done it before this season. There was a month-long stretch from November into December where he averaged 12.5 points in 26.6 minutes per game; he’d average just over 7 points per game in the following five games. He averaged 13.2 points per game for an 11-game stretch in January, only to post back-to-back two-point performances against the Warriors and Nets at the end of the month. He averaged 14.3 points for an eight-game stretch before the All-Star break, but he averaged just 5.2 points per game in the five games coming out of the break that preceded the current road trip.
The trick for Hayward now, as he continues to regain the confidence of an NBA All-Star after last year’s significant ankle injury, will be sustaining this run. Not for five games, not for eight games, and not for 11 games, but for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
He obviously can’t score 30 points off the bench every night, but if he can continue to contribute to wins the way he has the past two nights, then it’s possible — possible — that the Celtics might actually be able to get where they’re supposed to get this coming spring.
And on that note, it seems as though Stevens is ready to stop talking about the injury, stop talking about Hayward “working himself back,” and stop talking about Hayward regaining his confidence. Stevens is ready to start evaluating Hayward as … Hayward.
“I mean, he should have plenty of confidence. He’s a heck of a player, and we all believe in him,” Stevens said. “I’ll probably stop talking about working his way back, and just call him Gordon, and help move forward. Because he’s obviously played great these two nights.”
If Hayward continues to make more people start seeing him as an All-Star basketball player instead of a player returning from injury, then maybe — juuuust maybe — things might really come together for the Celtics at the right time.MORE NEWS: Needham Students Get COVID Shot At Student Vaccination Clinics