CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward expressed confidence in his team for the 2018-19 season, as it faces an Eastern Conference that no longer has LeBron James, who moved to the Los Angeles Lakers in July, but now features Kawhi Leonard, who was traded to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.
“The East is still going to be a tough conference; I think a lot of people are writing the East off,” Hayward said during media appearances Thursday at a “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4” event at an Xfinity Store 15 minutes west of TD Garden. “There were some surprises last year in the East, and there are still going to be teams that have young talent that gained a lot of experience last year that will be tough matchups for us. That said, I’m confident that we’ve got everything we need to make the run at the whole thing.”
On Wednesday, the Raptors acquired Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for four-time All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan. Leonard’s arrival changes a Raptors lineup that has struggled for years in the postseason, particularly when James and his former Cleveland Cavaliers were their opponent. Cleveland swept Toronto in the conference semifinals the past two seasons.
Hayward said swapping DeRozan for Leonard changes the Raptors “a little bit,” but said he’s confident the Celtics will be ready for the new-look team.
“Toronto was a good team with DeMar, so with Kawhi, they’ll be just as good,” Hayward said. “He changes them a little bit. They’ll for sure be a good team. I still like our chances, and I feel like we’ve got enough to win the whole thing. He’s a guy that will add some toughness to their team defensively, a little versatility. He’s a two-time defensive player of the year, so he’s always a matchup problem out there on the wing. We’ll be ready for him.”
In October, during the Celtics’ opening game of the 2017-18 regular season against the Cavaliers, Hayward suffered a fractured tibia and a dislocated ankle in a botched alley-oop attempt from teammate Kyrie Irving. Hayward underwent surgery shortly thereafter and then another in March to remove a plate inserted in the first operation. The injuries and surgery sidelined the max-level player for the season.
Hayward reaffirmed reports that he intended to return the court by training camp in September. He said he believed he would be back at full speed by August “and then see how my ankle reacts to that.”
“I’ll be ready to go for sure,” Hayward said. “Since I’ve had my second surgery, I’ve been feeling a lot better. My ankle has reacted a lot better to different drills, strength movements and different things I’ve done on it, so the next step is go live and play against other people. Instead of just doing rehearse drills, I’m doing reactive drills. It’s doing a lot better.”
In addition to Hayward’s injury, the Celtics lost All-Star guard Irving — whom they traded for last summer after signing Hayward to a four-year, $128 million deal — to injury before the playoffs. Despite the losses of their two best players, the Celtics finished second in the regular season in the Eastern Conference, behind the Raptors, and then — in an effort led by young stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier and veteran big man Al Horford — second in the Eastern Conference playoffs after a close conference finals lost to the Cavaliers.
“[Kyrie and I] texted, we watched the games sitting right next to each other on the sideline,” Hayward said. “It’s one of the hardest things I believe you can do as an athlete: be injured and having to watch your team play; especially for me, because I chose to leave [the Jazz] and come play for the Celtics, then only to watch the Celtics play all year. It was extremely difficult.”
Irving and Hayward are both expected to return to a Celtics team that retained many of its best bench players, like Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes, in the offseason.
“We’ve got a lot of depth,” Hayward said. “We basically signed everybody back, so we’re going to run it back. I’m very excited, very excited for what we can do as a team. Last year was a great year, although we had some injuries, and obviously not for me individually, but a great year for the Celtics, as far as guys getting experience in being put in situations they probably wouldn’t have been put in. That’s invaluable, so I think we’re looking up.”