By Scott Sullivan, WBZ-TV Sports
BOSTON (CBS) -- For a while now, Celtics "leader" Kyrie Irving has been saying that once the playoffs start, the C's can flip a switch and go on a run. Yet, realistically, it seems unlikely considering the consistent inconsistency they've shown all season.
But, if Gordon Hayward continues to emerge and play like his former self, a long postseason run just might be in the cards.
Not surprisingly, Hayward struggled at the start of the year after missing all of last season following a catastrophic leg injury on opening night in Cleveland. He seemed hesitant with the ball in his hands. His speed and explosiveness were not there and his shooting was sub-par. All of this was natural. You just don't miss a full season of pro basketball and return like nothing happened. Just ask Paul George.
Head Coach Brad Stevens had to know this, but insisted on putting Hayward in the starting lineup to open the season. That was a mistake. He wasn't ready and his teammates knew it. Jaylen Brown or Marcus Morris should have started in his place. Finally, in mid-November, after a brutal performance in his first game back in Utah, Stevens pulled the plug and took Hayward out of the starting lineup.
This had to hurt. For seven seasons with the Jazz, Hayward steadily made himself into one of the best small forwards in the NBA, culminating with his first All-Star appearance in 2017. Following that, he became one of the most sought after free agents in the league, and cashed in, signing a four-year, max contract with the Celtics worth a whopping $128 million dollars. Life was good. Really good. Then his ankle exploded and everything changed.
Fast forward to Wednesday night in Miami, and there he was looking a lot more like the real Gordon Hayward, finishing with a game-high 25 points in 32 minutes. It wasn't flashy. He didn't shoot the light outs. Instead, he did what he has done for most of his career: he slashed and sliced his way to the basket to make things happen. Hayward shot a season-high 13 free throws and made 12 of them. He also showed his all-around game grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out five assists.
This wasn't the first time Hayward had a big game this season. There were the two 30- point nights against Minnesota. The near triple-double against Dallas and the 26-point performance in Philly back in February. He also dropped 30 in Boston's shocking win in Golden State a month ago. Nevertheless, these moments were sporadic and usually followed up with a dud. That is until recently.
Since missing three games with a concussion, Hayward has scored in double figures in six straight. He's also averaged 6.5 rebounds and three assists in that span. He's been aggressive and confident, two traits that has made Hayward who he is. He also seems to have more burst in his legs.
But can he keep it up? Hayward's year has been a microcosm of the entire Celtics season; flashes of brilliance followed up by inconsistency and complacency. The C's have teased us with five win-streaks of four or more games, only to let us down with bad losses, team meetings and Irving's maddening mood swings regarding his future and young teammates. Thankfully, the C's seem to be on the right track, winning four of their last five games with the postseason just around the corner.
When Danny Ainge signed Hayward and acquired Irving in the summer of 2017, adding them to steady veteran Al Horford, it appeared as though the Celtics had their new Big Three. Unfortunately, Hayward's injury stopped the new trio before it could begin. However, on Wednesday night, we got our first glimpse of what's possible when all three play well at the same time. Yes, they each had more than 20 points, but more importantly, Irving did not have to carry the load in the fourth quarter. Instead, it was Hayward doing most of the ball handling while scoring 11 points. Irving's heroics were unnecessary.
Far too often this season it's been Irving-or-bust late in the fourth quarters of close games. Having a consistent, and more importantly, a confident Gordon Hayward changes all of that. Now teams can't just focus their game plans around stopping Kyrie. Hayward gives the C's another valid option thanks to his shooting and underrated passing abilities. Match that with "Playoff Al" and all of a sudden, the Celtics could be giving opposing defenses nightmares.
Therefore, Kyrie could actually be right. As frustrating and infuriating as this season has been, the long-awaited emergence of Gordon Hayward changes everything. Perhaps they can switch that flip after all.
Click here for more from Scott Sullivan, including episodes of his web series "A Slice Of Sully!"
for more features.