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Twice the First Time (NBA Opening Night: 76ers at Celtics)

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akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

 

BOSTON — Every misstep, missed shot and unsuccessful drive to the basket, as frustrating as it would normally be at any point during any game in his career, were welcomed outcomes for Celtics forward Gordon Hayward on Tuesday night, embracing every moment that comes with being an active NBA player that he was robbed of last season, save a fateful five minutes and 15 seconds in Cleveland.

Regular-season game number 517 in Hayward’s career, what turned out to be a 105-87 Boston victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on NBA’s Opening Night, would have brought additional nerves just for the fact that he was making his regular-season home debut in a Celtics uniform, playing underneath a figurative white-hot spotlight and 17 actual championship banners hung in the TD Garden rafters. But given that the last time he wore “CELTICS” across the chest in the regular season ended with a fractured ankle after going up to catch a lob pass in the first quarter against the Cavaliers away from Boston, the 12 months of pain, recovery, anxiousness and doubt all coalesced into a bouncing ball in the pit of Hayward’s stomach, leading to his name being introduced in the starting lineup right before opening tip.

“It was amazing to be out there on the court again for a regular season game,” said Hayward. “My adrenaline was definitely bumping those first three or four minutes. I think everyone’s adrenaline was bumping. It was sloppy at first, but it was great to be out there. That was a big step for me.”

The arduous steps Hayward took in his recovery were memorialized in a video montage played on the Jumbotron right before the start of the game, and, as laser-focused as he might have very well been in concentrating on the task at hand in trying to beat an Eastern Conference rival, Hayward could not help but peek skyward to see his own journey play out in front of his eyes.

“It brought back a lot of memories, a lot of dark memories and a lot of dark times,” Hayward said. “But to be honest, it was cool to see some of that progression. They showed just a little bit of everything of me and then finally being back so I thought that was really well done and it was cool watching it.”

In almost 25 minutes of game action, some of the old Hayward was evident in his play, mostly with a couple of drives to the basket in traffic — even if the results at the end were not typical of the 2017 NBA-All Star. The offensive highlights came when he made back-to-back pull-up jumpers inside of the arc early in the second quarter.

But those drives, as well as his takeoffs and descents to the ground without incident, were victories, especially given that the horrific night at Quicken Loans Arena last October did race through his mind a number of times he decided to race to the basket tonight.

“Just thought about maybe not doing any backdoor plays this game,” Hayward said jokingly. “It for sure went through my mind. It was a major part of my life at this point in time so I tried to just get that out of my head as soon as I started playing and, once you’re out there on the court, some of that disappears.”

Hayward scored 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting, had five rebounds and, most impressively, racked up four steals without committing a turnover. Along with Kyrie Irving’s return from knee surgery that cost him a chance to participate in last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, one more year of challenging playoff battles under their belts and the departure of LeBron James from Cleveland to Los Angeles, Boston goes into this season as a near-prohibitive favorite to make it to the NBA Finals. A healthy Hayward could be what sends the Celtics over the line to fulfill the abundant promise it possesses.

“I watched him play one-on-one in August, you know, I watched him play some five-on-five in just open gym. So I’ve seen him and he’s looked really good,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “And then the last week, he’s been better…But it’s clearly something for him to kind of check the box and get it behind him – and probably for everybody, too.”

The initial hurdles have been cleared for Hayward and Irving, but, afterward, it is back to the drawing board — while being a little more appreciative of where the both had been just a few months ago.

“A lot to work on for me,” Hayward said. “But, like I said, the joy of being out here was amazing.”

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