Tomase: Gordon Hayward played like a superstar, and suddenly season doesn't feel so lost

John Tomase
March 06, 2019 - 11:06 am

Just when it looked like Gordon Hayward couldn't possibly give the Celtics anything of value this season, Tuesday night happened.

Mired in such a pronounced slump that even his agent admitted he wouldn't be himself until next season, Hayward didn't just flip a switch in Golden State. He tripped the breaker in Dr. Frankenstein's lab and summoned lightning.

We've seen 30-point outbursts from Hayward in a Celtics uniform before, but never one like this. He stepped confidently into his first touch of the night to drain a 3-pointer and never stopped attacking thereafter.

If you didn't know about last year's broken leg, you wouldn't have suspected it had ever happened. Playing against the team featuring a player who had anonymously labeled him a liability at both ends following a January matchup in Boston, Hayward dominated the Warriors from baseline to baseline in a 128-95 whupping.

He finished with 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He made a concerted effort to get to the basket and dunked twice, including an emphatic two-hander off a Terry Rozier steal.

It was the kind of performance that made you believe in the Celtics as a viable contender, if only for a night, with Hayward finally overcoming his understandable ankle issues to ride a worthy sidecar to Kyrie Irving.

"Some of it is just taking what the defense gives me," Hayward told reporters, including Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald. "When the first one goes down, it's a really good feeling. It makes them kind of respect that jump shot. I've always been a guy that gets to the rim first and tries to get into the lane, so then that opens up that game for me. Just good shooting night for me."

Except it wasn't just that. When Hayward dropped 26 on the Sixers a couple of weeks ago, before spraining his good ankle during the All-Star break, he did so almost entirely from distance, drilling seven 3-pointers. On Tuesday, he scored from everywhere. He made four 3s and another long jumper with his toe on the line. He nailed a fallaway at the foul line and a floater in the lane. He finished four times at the rim and was fouled on an attempted tomahawk that would've been his most aggressive dunk of the season.

Hayward played with a scar under his left eye, the remnant of a recent wayward elbow, and it was a fitting image for a player who has been battered and bruised by fans and opponents all season. Would he ever be himself again? Why didn't he attack the rim anymore? What happened to his explosiveness?

While it would be foolhardy to declare Hayward all better after just one game -- he had totaled only 26 points in his previous five contests after all -- this was the first time Celtics fans had seen a vintage performance like he routinely delivered two years ago in Utah en route to his first All-Star Game.

The impact of an assertive Hayward on the rest of the roster would be profound. Part of the problem with this year's team has been the lack of a clear No. 2 behind Irving. Some nights it's Al Horford, but his knee isn't letting him move like he did last postseason. Other nights it's Jayson Tatum, but he just turned 21 and is still learning the difference between a good shot and a bad one. Other nights it's Marcus Morris, whose shooting has fallen off a cliff, or Jaylen Brown, who has quietly become the team's most consistent source of energy.

In a world where 2017 opening night in Cleveland never happened, Hayward would be that guy, and Tuesday night showed why. Maybe there's time to find a version of that before the postseason.

Even if there isn't, in the big picture it's nice to know it's still in him. Or to put it in terms familiar to anyone who has read Shelley's masterpiece: "It's alive! It's alive!"