SALT LAKE CITY — Two seasons in the making, Gordon Hayward’s return to Utah will finally go down Friday night, giving Jazz fans the first chance to let their collective feelings known.
Hayward bolted from the Jazz to the Celtics as a free agent following the 2016-17 season in a somewhat awkward departure that much of Salt Lake City learned about in the forward’s own story written in the Player’s Tribune.
Rejection letters sting, no matter the format.
Gordon’s presence Friday, after seven seasons with the Jazz, will be more than just a side note when the Celtics play in Utah on Friday night. At least call it equal billing with the Celtics’ curious play of late, their first-half struggles and late rally Thursday at Phoenix notwithstanding.
Hayward’s much-anticipated return did not happen last season after the Butler product was injured in the Celtics’ season opener and he missed the remainder of the year.
“Obviously he did so much for this organization, for this state,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell told reporters after Wednesday’s victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “He’s a great player.”
Mitchell has become the main object of affection for Jazz fans these days. His 23-point performance Wednesday, with multiple highlight-reel dunks, is evidence as to why.
But taking over the star-player throne from Hayward has not been easy. Hayward averaged 15.5 points per game in his seven years in Utah, but that final season he poured in 21.9 per game and became an All-Star. Then poof, he was gone.
“Gordon, he’s a good guy. It is what it is,” the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert said, according to the Deseret News. “Sometimes you make choices that you think are good for you and we’re not here to judge anyone. It’s just a game. We’re just going to go play basketball and that’s it.”
As far as the game goes, the Celtics will arrive in Utah with a positive outlook after that rally to defeat the Suns on Thursday, but needed overtime to do it on the first night of back-to-backs. It was a remarkable turnaround in a game where only one starter — Kyrie Irving — scored a point in the first half as Boston trailed by 20 points after two quarters.
The Jazz, is also feeling a whole lot better about its situation after a convincing victory Wednesday that ended a four-game skid.
Mitchell was able to get things going for the Jazz after returning from an ankle injury. He sat out two of the Jazz’s previous three games.
The Jazz will try to figure out a way that Mitchell can expose the Celtics’ defense much like Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray did, when he scored 48 points against Boston this week. Celtics players bristled when Murray tried to pass the 50 mark on a long 3-pointer at the buzzer of a game that had long been decided.
“We stopped moving the ball, we started settling, a lot of iso stuff,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said after Monday’s defeat, according to the Boston Globe. “Missing some easy ones. We still could have won this game. We just have to find ways to win when it comes down to the end, rebounds, stops. That mentality is going to get you a W.”
It got better Thursday at Phoenix, but only in the second half. Not only did the Celtics erase that 20-point deficit after the break, they had a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter before forcing overtime and earning a 116-109 victory.
Even with Hayward playing again, the Celtics are in somewhat of a transition period. Hayward still has not come close to returning to the player he was during his Utah days and has been on monitored minutes. Irving is also returning from a knee procedure in April that ended his season and he played 43 minutes Thursday.
The Celtics are expected to be a force in the Eastern Conference, but are only 7-4 as they search for consistency. They have been solid overall on defense, entering play Thursday third best in the NBA after allowing 101.3 points per game. But have been vulnerable in key stretches, leading to defeats such as Monday when Murray ushered them out of Denver.
“We tried a lot of different guys, a lot of different coverages, we tried to go small and switch, tried to do a lot of different things,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, according to nba.com. “He pretty much cooked us all night. He had a heck of a game.”