The first seven seasons of Gordon Hayward’s NBA career were, almost without exception, injury-free. But that all changed on October 17, 2017.
In the first game of the season and his first game as one of two seismic off-season acquisitions by the Boston Celtics (the other was Kyrie Irving), the 6-foot-7 forward brutally shattered his ankle on an alley-oop attempt. Then, last season, Hayward suffered another albeit less serious ankle injury during Boston’s playoff run inside the bubble.
Both injuries had a substantial impact on Hayward’s time in Boston, which ended this offseason when he opted out of his contract to sign a four-year $120 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets.
“I had no business being out there on the court at all,” Hayward said when asked by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski if he should have returned to the 2020 playoffs following a Grade 3 ankle sprain in the first round. “My injury, I think, was a lot more severe than people understood.”
Hayward, a guest on “The Woj Pod” podcast, continued:
“Literally, when I got back to the bubble, I hadn’t even run yet. You have to quarantine too, so then you have to take off like six or seven days from rehab because [you’re] just in a hotel room. They had a nice setup with different things for me to do in there individually for rehab, but there’s no way that I’m going to do as good a job as anybody else. They gave me 30 minutes outside I think on day four, and that was the first that I had really started jogging. So I’m like jogging for the first time, and as you know in a basketball game you can’t really just jog in a straight line forward. You’re constantly moving, changing speeds, directions. So from a health standpoint I probably shouldn’t have played. I was just trying to kind of provide some sort of inspiration for the guys. Like I’m coming back, here we are, we can still do this. I gave it my best.”
Hayward, who is averaging a team-best 22.3 points for the sixth-place Hornets, indicated that had it not been the playoffs, he would’ve likely not returned to the bubble last season.
“I kind of think all bets are off in the playoffs. You’re trying to do whatever you can to give your team whatever you can give them,” said Hayward. “I had just started to run, so I knew I wasn’t 100 percent. But it’s one of those things where you’re in the playoffs, so you gotta just give what you can.”
Hayward returned to the lineup for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals versus the Miami Heat. Boston was eliminated eight days later, 4-2.
A Different Dynamic
Hayward also discussed his return to the Celtics lineup in 2018 following his stomach-churning broken ankle, which caused him to miss the entire 2017-18 campaign.
By then the team’s dynamic was vastly different, in part due to the opportunities created by Hayward’s absence. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had established themselves as rising Celtics stars alongside proven entities Al Horford and Irving. Combo guard Terry Rozier had also raised his profile considerably.
“There was just a different situation,” said Hayward. “You had both me and Kyrie coming back from injuries. At the same time, we had probably what, four or five maybe even six guys that were really really talented players [with] high usage and felt like they should be the ones with the ball. We just had an extremely talented team and didn’t have much time to kind of gel or build any sort of chemistry.”
Blame for the team’s lack of chemistry was often placed at Hayward’s feet, and some speculated that he was receiving preferential treatment from Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who had also been Hayward’s college coach at Butler.
“I don’t quite understand how people could say that coach Brad treated me, I guess, differently,” said Hayward. “I came off the bench basically the whole year, probably had the lowest amount of usage that I had since my second or third year in the NBA, and played the least amount of minutes. So I don’t know how any of that was justified.”
Instead, Hayward claimed he and his teammates were simply frustrated and in a state of disbelief much of the season. “More than anything with our team it was just like frustrations,” said Hayward, whose Celtics went 49-33 and were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by Milwaukee in five games.
“We’re looking around the room at all the talent we have and it’s like man we should be way better than how we’re playing and how we’re performing. So I think that was the frustration that I felt from everybody. We should be winning more games.”
‘It’s Weird, Honestly’
The topic of how things will feel to players once coronavirus restrictions are lifted also came up during the interview.
“I think it’s going to be a little eye-opening when we play in front of fans again, for everybody,” said Hayward. “Because it’s just so different out on the court, it’s even more different than it was in the bubble. [The bubble] was so compact, like everything was kind of smaller so the vibe there was different too with the way they did the sound, and you had the glass or plastic panels on the left, too.”
NBA arenas, on the other hand, help put a fine point on the lack of fans.
“These arenas are huge, right? And in most of them you’re just seeing empty seats,” said Hayward. “Certainly not the same when the game is on the line, or you get a big stop, or a big block or Melo [Ball] to Miles [Bridges] for a big oop. You know the crowd would go wild. It’s weird, honestly.”