Myles Turner had 18 points and six blocked shots, including on the final play of the game, to save the Pacers at United Center
J. Michael, IndyStar
INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Pacers are going to have their hands full tonight. Not only will they take on a lethal Boston Celtics squad that has rattled off four consecutive victories — including Thursday’s night 117-113 win against the previously unbeaten Milwaukee Bucks — but one that is nearing a return to full strength.
Point guard Kyrie Irving is looking more and more like the all-world player he was before missing the majority of last year’s playoffs with a knee injury, while Gordon Hayward seems to be rounding back into form, as well.
After suffering one of the most gruesome injuries in NBA history — a broken leg that required a pair of surgeries and exhaustive rehab to heal — Gordon Hayward, the former Butler Bulldogs star, is starting to resemble his old self.
In Boston’s win over Milwaukee, Hayward scored a season-best 18 points while playing a season-high 27 minutes. The former Brownsburg High School star admitted after the game that his knee was “definitely a little bit sore,” but that he was ultimately happy it held up.
Ahead of Saturday’s game against the Pacers — the team he grew up watching — Hayward said his knee was feeling good, though he’s certainly not yet back to 100 percent.
“It’s getting there,” Hayward told IndyStar ahead of Celtics shootaround Saturday morning at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “Slowly but surely. I’m still on a minutes restriction (25-27 minutes), and I’m definitely not feeling 100 percent comfortable, but I think game by game it gets a little better.”
Despite Victor Oladipo being ill and the 3s being scarce, the Pacers are able to ride their defense to victory until their offense catches up.
J. Michael, IndyStar
Part of what makes Hayward so valuable, said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, is that he doesn’t necessarily need to be full strength to be effective. He’s one of the league’s best shooters and an underrated passer. Because of that, Stevens said the Celtics can still play through Hayward despite him still being physically limited.
Among the best signs in Hayward’s return, added Stevens, is that he’s already beginning to see signs of him falling into a rhythm with his teammates. What people tend to forget, the coach said, was that Hayward never had a chance to play with this group last year. He broke his leg in the season-opener, so he’s still learning how he fits in with a team that pushed LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals — without he or Kyrie Irving.
“I don’t think it’s as much the health,” said the Zionsville grad who led Hayward and Butler to back-to-back national championship game appearances at the beginning of the decade. “It’s as much about getting a rhythm of playing with this group. He never really played with these guys except for the first three weeks of last year. We’re all learning what each other does best. For a team with so much continuity back from last year, it does’t feel like as much continuity with Kyrie and Gordon both missing the end of the season. They have skill-sets we need to learn to take advantage of when they’re on the floor.”
Hayward doesn’t expect there to be any jitters playing in front of a hoard of his hometown fans Saturday. He’s already done it so many times during his NBA career that those nerves are gone, he said. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t looking forward to putting on a show for them.
“It’s great to be back in Indy,” said Hayward, who added how grateful he was to all of the people in Indiana who helped him during his rehabilitation. “I missed the opportunity last year, so anytime I get to play in front of friends and family, it’s great.
“The Pacers are a really good team. They have guys who play hard and compete. They know their roles. They’re dangerous. They’re definitely a dangerous team. I’m looking forward to it. It should be a really good game.”
Follow IndyStar Sports reporter Jim Ayello on Twitter and Facebook: @jimayello,