BOSTON — Boston Celtics wing Gordon Hayward didn’t see his teammates reacting to the scary moment against the Charlotte Hornets when Kemba Walker tangled him up and accidentally brought him crashing to the floor.
But if he had somehow managed to look to his left as he flipped head over heels toward the ground, he would have seen the entire bench up and ready to run forward and check on him (Brad Stevens made sure to hold everyone back). Aron Baynes shot up like he sat on something sharp. Guerschon Yabusele threw his arms out in indignation. Kyrie Irving, who dumped off the pass to Hayward that forced the foul, bent over instantly to make sure was okay.
He was, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, including Hayward.
“There was definitely an initial moment, for sure,” Hayward said on Tuesday, after the Celtics practiced back in Boston. “I remember I went up and I thought I was coming down hard. Thankfully they caught me. Somebody caught me.”
That somebody was Walker, who helped Hayward to his feet quickly. There was clearly no malicious intent, and in fact, as Hayward noted, plays like that are actually good for him in the long run. The more often they happen, the less he will worry about them happening.
“I need to have those plays happen just for my mental confidence that it’s all going to be okay,” Hayward said. “I need to be hit. I need to go in there and bang around.”
Roughly 20 percent of the way through the season, the Celtics are still struggling, and Hayward is still clearly trying to find his path back from the devastating ankle injury that ended his 2017-18 season minutes after it started. His game is improving in ebbs and flows — some areas are returning quickly, while others require more time and attention.
Defensively, Hayward is looking closer. He moves well laterally, containing ball-handlers out of the pick-and-roll. When an opponent throws a lazy pass, Hayward is quick to pick it off and start the break the other way.
But even with all of the shifting, leaping and moving on his repaired ankle, Hayward said the defensive end is the simpler of the two.
“I think a lot of defense is effort, just playing hard, trying to compete, trying to do the right thing,” Hayward said. “You’re going to get beat. It’s the NBA — they are good players, they are trying to score, but usually if you just play hard, you can cover your mistakes. So a lot of that is that’s the reason, you’re just playing hard.”
The other side of the ball has been more complicated. Offense requires rhythm and change of speed, rather than simply going all out all the time. As Zach Lowe noted on the Lowe Post podcast Tuesday, Hayward calls for a pick-and-roll constantly — his burst is still missing. He can go fast and he can go slow, and he can try really hard, but the finesse plays are still a work in progress.
“Sometimes you could be playing too hard offensively, and trying to force things and press things, and you’re putting your head down and turning it over or whatever,” Hayward said. “Offense you have to slow down at times and read and be able to change speeds.”
Perhaps his worst struggles have been in two of the most important areas: At the rim (55 percent, 28th percentile among wings) and behind the arc (28 percent, 11th percentile). In his last healthy season, Hayward shot 67 percent at the rim and 40 percent from three.
The shots at the rim seem more concerning, because the only way to improve is to keep hammering away at a thing that doesn’t feel like it’s working. The Celtics have been putting Hayward through workouts with pads, where he tries to finish at the rim while assistant coaches smack him around. He said whenever he gets an opportunity during offensive drills or scrimmages, he dunks to remind himself to be forceful.
“It’s like a mental confidence of jumping off that leg and feeling like I’ve had a couple times where I’ve gone to the rim and I haven’t finished the way I’m used to finishing,” Hayward sad. “So then that kind of knocks my confidence down a little bit. And then the next time I go in there, and I bail out and pass it, which I can’t do. So it kind of goes back to like I said, I have to be able to go in there and get hit and feel fine doing that. That’s just something I need to practice out here, but really I just need to try doing it.”
Like so many other Celtics, Hayward’s struggles seem fixable if the threes and layups start falling. His teammates believe they will.
“Gordon is going to come around,” Marcus Morris said. “He came back from not playing for a year. He’s a good player. He’s going to come around. It’s a long season.”
In the interim, Hayward is simply enjoying his consistent minutes — his restriction was officially lifted a little over a week ago. The recovery process was long and frustrating, but he is still only a little over a year removed from the initial injury.
“I’m trying to tell myself I’ve come so far from the injury, so enjoy being out on the court and finding joy in it,” Hayward said. “Then your game will slowly get back up to where it was.”