Brown: Celtics need Hayward’s presence now more than ever

 Chris Allen Brown, Associate Editor

Gordon Hayward’s 2017-18 stat line reads: .500 field goal percentage, 1.0 rebound and 2.0 points per game. That doesn’t include the 0’s in the 3-point and free throw percentages, assists, blocks and steals per game columns.

Hayward, who signed a four-year, $128 million contract with the Boston Celtics on July 14, 2017, fractured the tibia and dislocated the ankle in his left leg five minutes and 11 seconds into his team debut against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 17. Soon after, the team announced the 27-year-old small forward would miss the remainder of the season.

Boston went on to lose to the Cavs 102-99 and then 108-100 to the Milwaukee Bucks the next night. However, the Celtics responded with a 16-game winning streak from Oct. 20 to Nov. 20 as Hayward began his recovery progress.

Despite sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings for much of the season, the Toronto Raptors recently claimed the top spot when Boston lost to the Indiana Pacers 97-91 on Feb. 9. But the more concerning thing, besides losing eight of their last 14 games, is how the Celtics aren’t doing much to improve themselves.

As the Cavs, which many people automatically wrote into the NBA Finals at the beginning of the season, made moves to acquire Rodney Hood (Utah Jazz), George Hill (Sacramento Kings), Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. (Los Angeles Lakers) to better their roster before the 2018 NBA trade deadline on Feb. 8.

What has Boston done? Signed 27-year-old Greg Monroe to a one-year contract.

Outside of a handful of “assigned” and “recalled” with their G-League affiliate Maine Red Claws, the Celtics have made no significant transaction since Hayward’s injury to combat what other teams around the Eastern Conference have done.

“What do we need? A versatile 6’8” defender who can switch one through four, handle the ball, create offense for others and make shots. That’s what we need. That’s Gordon Hayward,” Boston Celtic president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is quoted as saying in a recent Sports Illustrated article.

Hayward uses blog posts to keep everyone updated on his rehab process. Attached to a post on Jan. 29, his latest entry, is a 30-second video of Hayward taking a few shots on the basketball court prior to the Celtics’ game against the Los Angeles Clippers, which Boston won 113-102, on Jan. 24.

“On a basketball court, I’m still limited to doing things where I’m basically standing still and then taking maybe one step. Everything is flat-footed,” Hayward said in the post. “So I can do a dribble pull-up, and though I don’t jump in the air, I still do the dribble and the step. On the finishes around the rim, I can do a step and finish, but staying on the ground.”

A. Sherrod Blakely, who covers the Celtics for NBC Sports Boston, tweeted prior to the Celtics’ 121-99 loss to the Cavs Sunday afternoon, that he briefly spoke to Hayward. Blakley states the Hayward said the plan for (Gordon) to start traveling with the team next month.

Next month includes Hayward’s birthday on March 23 and then a return to Utah, where Hayward was drafted with the 9th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft and spent the 2010-2017 seasons before signing with the Celtics, on March 28.

Following the game against the Jazz, the Celtics will have seven games remaining during the regular season, including two against Toronto and one at the Washington Wizards, both of which should be in the mix atop the conference standings.

Maybe Hayward remains out for the season, like the team initially stated, but having a player who has known Celtics head coach Brad Stevens and his coaching methods for nearly 10 years back on road trips during the regular season’s final month will be critical if Boston wants to reach the heights fans imagined when Hayward announced his signing before the season.

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