MIAMI – Gordon Hayward did his best impression of the Miami Heat logo Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, where he streaked to the rim like a flaming asteroid possession after possession. The veteran Celtics wing came off the bench to score a game-high 25 points, of which 12 were earned from the free-throw line, to help lead Boston to a 112-102 win over the Heat.
Driving to the rim with confidence is something that Hayward has been progressing on while making his way back from last year’s season-ending ankle injury. One sign of that growth has been the increase he’s seen in free-throw attempts of late, including the season-high of 13 that he tallied Wednesday night.
“It’s night and day,” teammate Al Horford said of Hayward’s aggressiveness now compared to at the beginning of the season. “I just think not only is he understanding what he needs to do and is feeling good, but also our guys starting to understand how to play with Gordon a little more. And when the ball is in his hands, usually good things happen. We just need him to continue to play with that confidence.”
Hayward, who also shot 5-of-10 from the field to go along with his 12-of-13 effort from the line, says he’s been making a concerted effort to drive to the basket more while trying to create contact. One of the reasons he has been able to do that more often is that he’s feeling far more explosive now than he did earlier in the season.
“I think doing all the (ankle) exercises is paying off,” Hayward said after his well-rounded effort, which also included eight rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers. “Just having more and more reps, and also just more time from the injury – that’s all helping.
“Finishing is something I’m still working on a lot and something I worked on a lot before the injury,” he added. “I think some of the timings are there, and I think the only thing is deciding when to go up and challenge bigs and when to kick out.”
Hayward wasn’t alone in challenging Miami’s bigs Wednesday night. His teammates joined him to combine for 31 trips to the charity stripe, of which 27 were converted.
Boston typically relies more on its perimeter shooting than its driving, having entered the contest averaging 34 3-point attempts per game compared to just 19.4 free-throw attempts. On this occasion, however, the C’s actually attempted seven more free-throws than triples.
“You want a happy balance, especially when you’re playing with the type of players that we have on this team,” Kyrie Irving said of the team’s distribution of drives and jump-shots. “We want to stay aggressive in getting to the rim, and we challenged them at the rim and stayed aggressive and got rewarded with some early bonus situations in quarters. Then really down the stretch, were able to extend our lead by slowing the game down and really getting to the free-throw line and knocking one out of two or two out of two down.”
What was impressive about Boston’s ability to get to the line so often Wednesday night was that it did so despite being without two of its top five free-throw attempt leaders – Jaylen Brown (back spasms) and Marcus Morris (knee soreness).
Fortunately, Hayward had more than enough drives in his back pocket to help make up for both of their absences.
“I think that he’s just trying things now and doing it with more confidence,” said Irving, who scored 23 points. “He’s getting into the lane, getting fouled and really understanding his size again, where at 6-9, he’s able to post guys up, able to come off screen-and-rolls and make great decisions.
“We’re best when he’s looking for his shot,” the point guard continued. “He’s a great facilitator, but we need ‘G’ to score. I told him that, and I’m going to keep telling him to stay aggressive, be himself, and really be that 20-point scorer that he was (before the injury).”
It’s worth noting that the Celtics are 5-0 this season in games which Hayward has scored 20 points or more. With the aggressive style he’s displayed of late, there’s plenty of reason to believe that we’ll be seeing many more of those explosive offensive efforts in the near future.
addByline("Taylor C. Snow", "Celtics.com", "taylorcsnow");