BOSTON — After Gordon Hayward missed his first two shots Wednesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves — on the heels of missing all six attempts while going scoreless for the first time in more than six years in Monday’s loss at the San Antonio Spurs — it didn’t look like the Celtics forward was about to have his biggest night of the season.
But once Hayward started making shots, he almost couldn’t miss.
Eventually, Hayward finished with a season-high 35 points on 14-of-18 shooting to go along with five assists to lead Boston to a 115-102 victory at TD Garden.
“He’s going to make a lot of shots, because he’s got a lot due,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He was disappointed in how he shot the ball, obviously, in San Antonio and got back in the gym this morning.
“You could tell he was going to play pretty well.”
That wasn’t apparent early on in this one, as Hayward missed those opening two shots and didn’t make his first basket until he hit a corner 3 off a Marcus Smart assist with 8:30 remaining in the second quarter.
From then on, though, things went far differently. He scored 10 straight points late in the second quarter — hitting another 3 and a runner, throwing down a dunk and getting fouled on a 3-pointer and making all three foul shots — before setting up Marcus Morris for a trey to extend Boston’s lead to 60-42 at halftime.
Hayward then went 7-for-8 and scored 15 points in the third quarter to help keep the Celtics in front as Boston saw its 22-point halftime lead dwindle all the way to six, though the Celtics never fully relinquished it en route to opening 2019 with a victory.
By the time Hayward was finished, his 35 points were the most by a Celtics reserve since Ricky Davis scored 36 in April 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Hayward also became the first Celtics reserve since the NBA started listing starters in box scores in the 1970-71 season to have 35 points and 5 assists in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“In the past, definitely, even during this season, as a young NBA player, if I missed my first couple shots, it probably wasn’t going to be a good game,” said Hayward. “But I think the credit [is] to my teammates for getting me open looks. That kind of gets you going.
“You see the ball go through the hoop, [and it] gives you a little bit of confidence. Getting stuff in transition, some easy ones, kinda get yourself going, that stuff always feels good.”
Hayward is still working his way back from the gruesome left leg and ankle injuries that ended his 2017-18 season after just six minutes of Boston’s season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While one hot shooting game after one cold one doesn’t mean that recovery is complete, there were other positive signs to take from Wednesday’s game. Perhaps the biggest one was Hayward throwing down three dunks against the Timberwolves, after having only seven dunks through his first 32 games this season and never having — or even attempting — more than one in a game.
Gordon Hayward gets cooled off his by teammates after scoring 35 points and discusses building confidence.
“Yeah, man, I think it’s slowly getting there,” Hayward said. “Like, I think my lateral movement, it’s so much better since the beginning of the season. But I think that’s pretty close to where it was. I think vertically I still have a little ways to go. My ankle is a little sore right now.
“But I think in April and May it’ll be better than it is right now. I’m still doing stuff for my ankle every day, trying to get it better. It’s the nature of the injury. It’s getting better.”
The Celtics, meanwhile, saw Morris leave the game with a stiff neck after taking a hard fall to the court in the second half.
“Sore as hell,” said Morris, who received treatment in the locker room for the remainder of the game. “It feels like I’ve got a crick in my neck. I just feel like I hope I wake up and it just feels better.”
Morris said it will be determined Thursday whether he needs further imaging.