By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Like most teams in the NBA these days, the Boston Celtics love to hoist threes. Lots and lots of threes.
But on Wednesday night in Miami, the Celtics looked different. They attempted just ("just") 24 triples, well off their season average of 34 attempts per game, opting for a much more aggressive attack against the Heat. Refreshingly, it paid off.
The Celtics were determined to do some damage down low on Wednesday, and it led to a healthy dose of freebies at the charity stripe. Boston was at the line 31 times against the Heat, connecting on 27 of their free throws in their 112-102 victory.
While their renewed sense of urgency to get to the basket was a nice escape from their usual three-point assault, it was who led the charge for the Celtics that is the most positive takeaway from Wednesday's win.
That leader was Gordon Hayward, who played one of his best games in a Boston uniform on Wednesday. The forward put his head down and attacked the rim throughout his 32 minutes off the Boston bench, scoring a team-high 25 points off 5-of-10 shooting. He connected on three of his five attempts from downtown, but it was his aggressiveness in going to the basket that made a real difference for the Celtics. Hayward attempted 13 of their 31 free throws, connecting on 12 of them.
Hayward's persistent attack came with very little hesitation, which is much different from what we saw out of the forward earlier in the season as he knocked off the rust of missing all of last year. He wasn't looking to be a facilitator against the Heat; with Kyrie Irving on the bench due to foul trouble late in the game, Hayward was the closer the Celtics needed to secure the win.
He finished with 11 points in the game's final frame, connecting on his three shots from the field. He drained a no-hesitation three with four minutes left to put the Celtics up 103-96, and on the next trip down the floor, drove right at Miami big man/cement wall Hassan Whiteside in the paint to draw a foul. When the Heat had cut it to a seven-point game with just over two minutes to play, Hayward danced his way into the lane again and hit a floater to extend Boston's lead back up to nine.
The Heat still had some fight left in them, but after they cut it to a six-point game with 1:18 left, Hayward drove right by Kelly Olynyk at the top of the key (not difficult) and right at the 6-foot-10, 255-pound body of Bam Adebayo (slightly more difficult). A few months ago, Hayward would have went looking for a teammate to kick it out to. This time, he absorbed the contact in the paint and put up a shot, getting to the stripe for two more freebies. He calmly knocked down both to give the C's a 110-102 lead and seal the victory for Boston.
Hayward's previous season-high for free throws was 10, which he did during his 30-point explosion against the Minnesota Timberwolves in December. He hadn't taken 13 free throws in a regular season game since 2016.
It has been a long road back for Hayward after last season's unfortunate opening night injury, with just about every step of his recovery -- and struggles -- well documented. But it's clear that as the Celtics get set for the playoffs, Gordon Hayward is back to being his aggressive self on the offensive end of the floor.
"Trying to get to the line, I think a concerted effort, but also a little bit more and more explosiveness for me," he told reporters after the win. "I think doing all the exercises is paying off and just having more and more reps — also just more time from the injury, so that's all helping."
Hayward's renewed sense of confidence is evident to his teammates.
"I think that he's just trying things now and doing it with more confidence," said Irving, who chipped in with 23 points. "He's getting into the lane, getting fouled and really understanding his size again, where at 6-foot-9, he's able to post guys up, able to come off screen-and-rolls and make great decisions.
"We're best when he's looking for his shot," Irving added. "He's a great facilitator, but we need 'G' to score. I told him that, and I'm going to keep telling him to stay aggressive, be himself, and really be that 20-point scorer that he was."
This is the latest in a stretch of solid performances by Hayward, whose biggest issue this season has been staying aggressive and finding his game. Since returning from a concussion that cost him three games, those issues have not been a concern. Hayward is hitting 53 percent of his shots over his last six games, averaging 15.7 points and 6.5 rebounds. He's provided the Celtics with a much-needed spark off the bench, with Boston winning four of those six contest.
The Celtics are 5-0 this season when Hayward scores 20 or more, including victories at Golden State and Philadelphia. The Celtics need Hayward to continue to be aggressive if they want to make a deep run this postseason. Based on Wednesday night's performance, the Celtics should feel fairly confident this stretch will continue when the playoffs arrive.
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