BOSTON — For Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, it wasn’t his performance that mattered in the NBA season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. For this game — Hayward’s first since sustaining a season-ending injury in the opener a year ago — it’s his mere appearance in an NBA game that had significance.
Just getting on the court in a Celtics uniform at TD Garden for an entire game meant something.
“That was a big step for me mentally, a big confidence boost just to finish that first game (and) be back on the court,” Hayward said. “That was a big hurdle.”
Yes, it was nice Hayward made shots (4 for 12), scored points (10), grabbed rebounds (five), collected steals (four) and contributed to Boston’s 105-87 victory against the Sixers.
“Definitely still a long ways to go,” he said. “I’m not where I want to be yet, but it was a great first step.”
Hayward just wanted to be on the court in a meaningful game. His performance — rusty applies — was secondary, at least for this one game.
He went through nearly a year of mundane and painful rehab for this moment: to get introduced as a starter and play in an NBA game again — considering Hayward questioned whether he would have a career or ever be the same All-Star player he was.
He described portions of the post-injury period and rehab as “dark memories and dark times.” He had flashbacks of the gruesome dislocated ankle injury suffered at Cleveland at various times before Tuesday’s game.
“I thought about not doing any lobs or backdoor plays this game,” Hayward said of the play that resulted in the injury. “It’s a major part of my life at this point in time, and I tried to just get that out of my head and start playing. Once you’re out there on the court, it’s something that disappears.”
It was not only Hayward’s first game since that injury, it was his first game in front of the home crowd since he decided to play for Boston in the summer of 2017. Seems so long ago.
“It was everything that I was expecting when I originally signed here,” Hayward said of the reception from Celtics fans. “I had to wait a year but it was amazing.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who also coached Hayward during Butler’s memorable Final Four runs, maintained a business-like approach to Hayward’s return. He pointed out it was an emotional night not only for Hayward, but for Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis, who missed the playoffs last season.
Stevens even downplayed Hayward’s return, telling reporters that he has been watching him play one-on-one and five-on-five for some time now. If he was moved, he didn’t show it. Maybe Stevens was simply trying to push past the injury and focus on the objective: making the Celtics a championship-caliber team.
But it was a different game, at least for Hayward and he knew it.
“There was an energy in the building that can’t be simulated,” Hayward said. “You can’t simulate the fans, the environment, the adrenaline that you get when you play.”
Hayward wasn’t at his best, and he knows he won’t be right away. His progression will be monitored and dissected until he returns to an All-Star level, and the Celtics have the luxury of a deep and talented team. Hayward doesn’t have to get there tomorrow, next week or even next month.
“Part of it is having patience and realizing it’s not all going to come at once,” Hayward said. “As long as I can do the things on the court that can help us get wins, I’ll be happy.
“I’ve learned about patience this whole last year, and I’m trying to teach that to my daughters. So, maybe I can have a little bit, too.”