BOSTON – Gordon Hayward stepped onto the Celtics’ practice floor on Thursday for the latest State of Gordon Hayward Address, which was about what you would expect after the last one. Hayward doesn’t address the local media regularly, but updates on his health — which come anywhere from blog posts to Instagram videos — have not been hard to find. In an eight-minute scrum, Hayward offered up every reason to be optimistic for a full recovery from the horrific ankle injury that cost him all but five minutes of last season.
“Two weeks now, playing full-court basketball, five-on-five. Pretty much no restrictions,” Hayward said. “I’m still trying to keep a progression of how much time and how much load I’m putting on that ankle, but for the most part I’m feeling very, very well. It’s so much fun to be able to play again. The next month or so will be good to get back into the game, to feel the rhythm, the timing.
“I would say I’m basically 100 percent. There are certain things that are going to take time. I’m 100 percent healthy. I’m not 100 percent basketball-wise just because I haven’t played in a year. I’m trying to figure those things out. The last step for me from a physical standpoint is a little explosion, that last juice, bounce that you get. That’s the longest time. For the most part, I feel really good.”
These are good days in the Celtics Kingdom. Earlier this week a video popped on social media of Kyrie Irving — five-plus months removed from knee surgery — scrimmaging with James Harden, Kevin Durant and others in Miami. A person in attendance described Irving as looking “[expletive] amazing,” adding that Irving played two straight days with no limitations.
Now you have Hayward, physically ready for training camp and professing to have no fear of cutting or jumping on the ankle that twisted so grotesquely in last year’s season opener.
“When you go through a process like this, you find the fight within yourself,” Hayward said. “There [were] so many days when you wake up, you say, ‘Here we go again,’ another day I’m driving in, it’s freezing cold weather and the team is in L.A. or Miami playing. I’m picking up marbles and putting them into a bucket. I’m standing on one leg and doing balance drills. I’m shooting from a chair. All that stuff, to be able to do it every single day, to do it a little bit longer, to do it a little bit better, it was a process and a journey and I’m still not there yet, but it helped me find the fight in myself.”
Less than two weeks until training camps open and you really have to look for reasons not to believe Boston will cruise to the Eastern Conference title. Toronto added Kawhi Leonard, Milwaukee recruited Mike Budenholzer and Philadelphia will reincorporate Markelle Fultz into the mix. Yet none of these teams can approach the top-to-bottom talent of the Celtics.
Boston can throw hockey-style lines at you. The Celtics’ second unit — let’s call it Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris and Daniel Theis — could compete for a playoff spot. Boston’s defensive versatility will be frightening, with all but Irving theoretically capable of defending multiple positions.
Could ego cause issues? Possibly. Coach Brad Stevens told the Yahoo Sports NBA Podcast last month that he will have what could be a tough conversation with someone about coming off the bench. The Celtics can stitch together an offensively lethal lineup with Al Horford in the middle, but Baynes — one of the NBA’s most underrated defensive big men — will get a lot of starts. That means someone from the Hayward/Brown/Jayson Tatum mix will have to begin games with the second unit.
“It’s not something I’m worried about at all,” Hayward said. “We’re worried about winning and putting another banner up behind you. We have so much depth, we have so much talent, it doesn’t matter who starts to me. My goal is to help us get that banner.”
Well, OK then.
A common criticism of the NBA in recent years is that its Finals matchups are predetermined, and it’s possible even the exit of LeBron James from the East won’t change that. Golden State is an overwhelming favorite to rep the West for the fifth straight season, and Boston could quickly prove it is untouchable on the other side. A 55-win conference finalist is adding an All-Star two-guard to its mix, one eager to shelve the State of Gordon Hayward updates for good. As Hayward reflected on his journey, on the highs of getting out of the walking boot and running for the first time, the lows of the second surgery and the tedious tasks he needed to perform during rehab, and the support he received from teammates, coaches and fans alike, he acknowledged he is ready to see what this team can do.
“Very anxious,” Hayward said. “Watching the guys last year gave me a lot of confidence in our team and what we can accomplish. Playing with some the last two weeks, we have some talent on this team, a lot of depth.”
And opening night?
“I 100 percent expect to be out there.”
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