This version of Hayward changes everything for Celtics

Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, throwing a pass Tuesday night past Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, 

BOSTON — It’s official: Gordon Hayward is back.

I think.

The Gordon Hayward I'm referring to is the 2016-17 Utah Jazz all-star, the guy who signed a four-year, $128 million contract with Boston on July 4, 2017.

You may not have noticed; it's been an emotional few days after the loss of Kobe Bryant from that horrific helicopter crash in Los Angeles that included his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. Everyone in the basketball world is in an understandable funk. Bryant was an all-time great who seemed to be admired and beloved by most people.

But something has happened the last week with Hayward. He has played his best three games as a Celtic, with the one on Tuesday night in Miami – 29 points (10-for-14) and 9 rebounds – his best. It’s the first time he played 37-plus minutes in three consecutive games, and the first time he scored 20 or more points (22, 23 and 29) over that span. He also averaged 9.67 rebounds, too.

Mind you, Hayward has had clusters of good games, in terms of production, including his superior passing game. But when you are being paid $32,700,690 in 2019-20, rebounding or moving the ball around shouldn’t be your best quality. We want buckets. Long ones. Dunks. Short jumpers. Whatever.

If there any correlation to Hayward’s focus and superior games? Maybe.

Jayson Tatum has been out the last three games with a hamstring pull. That has opened up minutes and a spot on the Celtics newest Big Three of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Tatum.

There could, particularly on Tuesday night, be the Kobe Factor. Hayward took it hard as one of the only Celtics who actually played against Kobe, spending six seasons as adversaries in the Western Conference.

Hayward noted how caring Kobe was after his brutal opening night injury – dislocated ankle – in Cleveland, in his first game as a Celtic. Kobe apparently checked in often on Hayward for support, having gone through a difficult Achilles tear himself.

Hayward said he also felt a kinship to Kobe due to the fact that they both only have daughters.

Last but not least is the ankle factor. Maybe he's officially healed. Or maybe, as it was noted when it happened, he is officially healed mentally.

"The game's kind of coming to me," said Hayward after the impressive win over the Heat. "Just trying to continue to make winning plays for us and trying to be aggressive, trying to attack."

Coach Brad Stevens, who not only recruited Hayward in high school but coached him at Butler University, is pumping the brakes a bit, at least publicly.

"Gordon's had a good rhythm in the last few games and has played pretty well," Stevens said.

Whatever the case, the Hayward we’ve seen the last few days deserves top billing with Walker, Tatum and Brown, all of whom are averaging over 20 points per game.

Good decisions on the court are one thing. They are a prerequisite. But the Gordon Hayward we expected – the basketball assassin – has been an all too-infrequent visitor. But on Tuesday night, his cuts seemed quicker. His path to the basket straighter. And he seemed to have no fear in pull-up 3-pointers.

If what we’ve seen the last three games, the old Gordon Hayward, becomes a semi-consistent performer going forward, this is a game-changer for the Celtics. Counting Marcus Smart, too, that gives the Celtics five legitimate star-caliber players heading into February. If that happens, the beast of the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are, all of sudden, beatable.


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