Gordon Hayward Erupts as Kyrie Irving, Celtics Rout Kevin Durant, Warriors

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2019

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 5:  Gordon Hayward #20 hi-fives Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics on March 5, 2019 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics started their four-game road trip with a dominant 128-95 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday in a matchup between struggling teams at Oracle Arena.

Boston improved to just 2-5 in its last seven games, while the Warriors fell to 3-5 in their last eight and haven't looked like the two-time defending champions of late.

Gordon Hayward exploded for 30 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals behind 12-of-16 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from deep in a vintage performance. Kyrie Irving (19 points, 11 assists and five boards) added a double-double, while Jaylen Brown (18 points) and Jayson Tatum (17 points) provided offensive support.

Stephen Curry (23 points) and Kevin Durant (18 points) spearheaded the effort for a Warriors team playing without Klay Thompson in the loss.

         

Talented but Drama-Riddled Celtics Can Find Hope from LeBron-Era Cavs

So much for the recent struggles.

The Celtics looked like a juggernaut instead of a team that has been laboring as they built a commanding 25-point halftime lead and added to it in Tuesday's matchup in arguably the most difficult place to play in the league.

It was a reminder of just how talented they can be despite the drama that has surrounded them and may have left some Eastern Conference fans reminiscing about the LeBron James-era Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cleveland squads of the past four campaigns were constant sources of consternation with shots at teammates on social media, front office mistakes, Irving asking for a trade, chemistry issues and the firing of head coaches David Blatt and Tyronn Lue. Just last season, the Cavaliers slogged their way to the No. 4 seed and almost lost in the first round to the Indiana Pacers.

Yet they always managed to flip the switch in the playoffs and rely on the overwhelming talent of James and a supporting cast that featured Irving (for three years) and Kevin Love and reached four straight NBA Finals. They even won the 2016 championship.

It is a blueprint this season's Celtics team can look to for hope, as talent is not the question. After all, they reached Game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference Finals even though Irving and Hayward were sidelined by injuries and brought the two playmakers back to a group with young talent in Tatum and Brown and veteran leadership in Al Horford.

Still, this season has been defined by drama, which has underscored the recent on-court struggles.

Brown called the environment around the team "toxic," per Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe (h/t Dan Feldman of NBC Sports), while Marcus Smart said, "we're just not together," per NBC Sports Boston.

Marcus Morris took things a step further in February when he said, per A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston, "I watch all these other teams in the league, they're jumping on the court, all the stuff that looks like they're enjoying their teammates' success. And they're playing together, and they're playing to win. When I look at us I see a bunch of individuals."

Much of it comes back to Irving, who can become a free agent this offseason and may be looking toward an eventual exit.

Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer cited sources who said he has "become disengaged and detached from those around the team" with a "change in demeanor" that dates back to February questions about whether he would join the New York Knicks in 2019-20.

"Irving has grown increasingly frustrated with the intense media coverage of his future decision, and the state of the team," O'Connor wrote.

There is unquestionably drama in Boston, but there was drama in Cleveland as well before the talent clicked in crunch time.

The Celtics' blitzing of the Warriors highlighted how dangerous they can be when operating on all cylinders. Hayward drilled threes, Irving sliced through the defense and facilitated when Golden State collapsed, Tatum unleashed his silky-smooth attacks off the bounce, and Brown found openings and exploited them.

It was a warning to the rest of the Eastern Conference.

LeBron's talent was enough to overcome the off-court headlines that threatened to undermine his most recent tenure in Cleveland when the games mattered most. The Celtics may very well do the same.

          

Gordon Hayward Delivers Breakout Performance at Crucial Time for Celtics

On Tuesday, Hayward looked like the All-Star from the Utah Jazz who averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in 2016-17 instead of the version of himself that has been mired in a season-long slump.

He unleashed a smooth stroke from deep, created looks inside the lane with moves in traffic and jumped into passing lanes to create turnovers and easy looks on the other side.

It was easy to feel good for Hayward during the performance after he suffered a gruesome leg injury in the 2017-18 season opener and missed the rest of his first campaign with Boston. He has also struggled to adjust to a new role with so much talent around him and has hesitated at times on the offensive end.

Hayward's 10.7 points per game this season represents his lowest since he was a rookie in 2010-11, and his three-point percentage has taken a significant drop from 2016-17 (39.8 percent to 32.8 percent).

Tuesday's showing on a national stage felt like a breakthrough performance, and the question now is whether he can sustain it with the stretch run and playoffs looming. After all, he scored 35 points in a January win over the Minnesota Timberwolves but failed to score 20 in his following 18 games with single digits in nine of them.

If he can sustain this effort, Boston can make up the three games separating it from the third-seeded Pacers and 2.5 games separating it from the fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.

That would create a situation where opposing defenses couldn't afford to help off Hayward, Tatum, Brown or Terry Rozier with Irving serving as the creator with the ball in his hands. Leaving Hayward has been the easy choice in that pick-your-poison situation this season, but the version of the Butler product that showed up against the Warriors changes the equation.

         

What's Next?

The Celtics are at the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, while the Warriors host the Denver Nuggets on Friday.

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