Brad Stevens made it abundantly clear in early March that he was done talking about Gordon Hayward’s return. The head coach didn’t want to talk about it because, in his mind, Hayward was completely back. If you didn’t agree with him then, you probably should now.
Hayward scored a game-high 21 points on 9-of-9 shooting in the Boston Celtics’ 117-97 win over the Indiana Pacers, which was his second 20-plus point effort in as many games. That’s the first time he’s scored 20-plus in consecutive games this season. Hayward also is the first Celtics player to score 21-plus points on 100 percent shooting since Kevin McHale did so on March 2, 1986, per Celtics Stats.
It’s no surprise the Celtics are a much better team when Hayward is scoring efficiently, but it’s much more than simply adding extra points to the stat sheet. If Friday’s win showed anything, it was how much flexibility he provides Stevens on the offensive end.
When Kyrie Irving started the second quarter on the bench, the Celtics used Hayward as a primary scorer, while also working him in and out as a primary ball handler. The 29-year-old scored eight points in the quarter’s first four minutes, setting the tone for a tremendous second frame.
Hayward’s game has evolved so much over the course of the season. Of course, that’ll happen when you’re recovering from a terrible ankle injury, but his game has returned to a very high level just one week before the start of the postseason. Hayward now has scored in double figures in seven consecutive games.
Friday night, similarly to the his last batch of games, was a prime example of his patient yet aggressive offensive game, combined with stout perimeter defense. He now looks for contact when attacking the paint, which is a pleasant change from earlier this season. It’s all coming into form for Hayward, just in time for when it matters most, and his head coach agrees.
The Celtics now are 6-0 on the season when Hayward reaches 20 points.
Here are some other notes from Friday’s Celtics-Pacers game:
— Jayson Tatum was as aggressive as he’s been in a while, earning himself 22 points on 9-of-19 shooting.
Tatum’s aggressive play bodes well for the Celtics heading into the playoffs. Boston struggles to get to the free throw line, but if Tatum can continue to get to the rim, that number rapidly will improve.
— Al Horford was very happy with the Celtics’ performance, telling reporters in Indiana, “This was one of (the Celtics’) better games this season by far.”
Horford has a point. The Celtics shot 52.2 percent on the night while holding the Pacers to 41.3 percent from the floor. A great all-around effort from Boston.
— Boston’s magic number to clinch home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is now one.
With Friday’s win, the Celtics now lead the Pacers by one game for the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. The two teams likely will face off in round one, and a win Sunday over the Orlando Magic will solidify Games 1 and 2 being played at TD Garden.