The return of Gordon Hayward in Utah marks the final stop on the slow comeback course

SALT LAKE CITY – During Gordon Hayward's injured time away from basketball, between the long hours of rehabilitation and the quality time with his family, Boston Celtics could find an hour or so to slip away, log in on his computer and jump in "League of Legends", the popular online multiplayer game.

"It just gave me a distraction, especially on nights when I really could not sleep," Hayward told ESPN. "I thought about many different things.

"It was a chance to hang out, talk to friends, think about it."

So when Riot Games, the company behind the game, came to Hayward with the idea of ​​playing a commercial, he embraced the idea of ​​building one around the similarities between his storyline and that of his favorite character, Tryndamere, a barbarian king with a unique special skill: the ability to return to life when he is about to die.

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"Just before he dies, he can do his utmost [skill]"Said Hayward." Then he gets a period in which he essentially builds strength again.

"When I spoke to them, I thought it perfectly matched what happened to me, and to rehabilitate and come back."

On Friday evening, Hayward will return to the court in Vivint Smart Home Arena for the first time, as he decided to leave the Utah Jazz as a free player to join the Celtics in July 2017. However, he will not do this as the All-Star he was when he left – at least not yet.

Instead, he returns as a player who is still in the middle of his recovery phase after experiencing the most traumatic event of his basketball life, except for the first six minutes of last season, after he had a damaged tibia on the left and the ankle in a fall during the fall was disrupted season opener in Cleveland. Hayward is still a way back to the impressive piece that the Celtics were expected to add to their list 18 months ago.

How long this recovery phase lasts can very well be the difference between Boston versus a third consecutive exit in the Eastern Conference finals or celebrating the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals in almost a decade.

Even under ideal circumstances, making up for a missed season would take time. Basketball, like any sport, is a game built on timing, rhythm and precision. All these features take constant exercise and repetition to perfect; looking at that atrophy for a year takes even more effort to bring them back to life.

That's where Hayward, 28, finds himself when he returns to where he spent the first seven years of his NBA career. For every step forward, such as his performance last week against the Milwaukee Bucks (18 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 27 minutes), there are reminders of his missed time, such as his appearance two nights later against his hometown of Indiana Pacers, when he shot 2-for-10 and scored 4 points in 26 minutes. Hayward has been held five times in just 10 games to five digits; he had six such games during his last season with the Jazz.

An inconsistent start, however, was to be expected. Not only does Hayward still have a limit of a few minutes, one that holds him in the middle of the 20s every night and lets him play in several short bursts during the game, but there is also that earlier muscle memory to come back.

Even if his season has started slowly, there is a glimmer of hope for the future – moments when the player he once had and hopes to re-appear shows himself for a moment. One came into the match against the Bucks, when Hayward landed with all his weight on his left leg – the first time he'd done that since he'd suffered that life-changing injury in Cleveland last year – after he'd tried to block a shot.

Gordon Hayward plays his first game in Utah since he left the free agent in July 2017. Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

As more such moments occur and Hayward keeps coming through unharmed, he will come closer and closer to the player he once was.

"I think I'll catch an alley, go up and dunking … I know I think one of them is capable of being baptized in traffic," Hayward said. "A kind of explosion with people around me There are many of those things that I do not really intend to do in my head, which naturally happen in a game, so hopefully I do it without thinking.

"I do it instinctively, and then everything is fine."

In a sport full of half-second decisions, the difference between thinking and reacting is often the difference between winning and losing. While that rust is still being washed away from Hayward's game, more instincts come out and thinking disappears.

Even during these first 10 games Celtics is central Al Horford has seen growth from Hayward on that front.

"The way he attacks the ball from the pick-and-roll," said Horford. "If you set a high screen, he attacks, he comes to the basket and starts to end comfortably.

"The first few games, there were times when he could have done that, but he stopped short and made a short slap, that's a way I look forward to progress."

Except that he just regains his skills on the field, Hayward makes his return to an unknown environment. He has, in fact, not played since he was in the lead for the Jazz as the center of everything they did under head coach Quin Snyder. While Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who employed him at Butler University, is clearly a familiar face, Hayward finds himself in a selection with other scoring opportunities.

And although he certainly has his place in the pecking order, the former go-to option now has to find where he falls among people like not only fellow-all-stars like Horford and Kyrie Irving, but young stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who bloomed a season ago in Hayward's absence. That balancing act adds another difficulty to what would be a long way forward for Hayward.

To this end: Hayward, who has scored 9.9 points per game this season, is in sixth place on the Celtics when scoring; Since his debut season, he has never been outside the top three of a team that he has participated in.

"It is a transition in many ways," Stevens said. "Ultimately, there is a physical transition, there is a transition of limited minutes, there is a game with a new group and it is reintegrated into the group.

"He has had really good moments, just like the rest of the others, we just have to be more consistent in our group to have those good moments more and more often."

Gordon Hayward is sixth on the Celtics and scored this season, while Kyrie Irving leads the team. Adam Glanzman / Getty Images

It is part of the reason behind Boston's slower than expected start of the season. And it made the process of getting Hayward back to the player he was before, all the more difficult to navigate.

"All in all is just … a lot to deal with," Hayward said.

"It's a process," Horford added. "With Gordon I have seen a number of improvements from game 1 to 10. But I think people should understand that he was on the road all year, it's not just that he comes back from an injury and feels good about himself, but also try to intervene in our group that is already established.

"That takes time, there is simply no possibility for that."

The time is something that Hayward is and the Celtics still have enough of it. An exciting comeback in Phoenix on Thursday night moved Boston to 7-4 just over three weeks in the regular season. While the Bucks and Toronto Raptors have introduced some space between themselves and Boston early, the Celtics are not playing for the time being.

The main goal for them to achieve in the next few months, between now and the beginning of the mid-season mid-season, is not to get the highest number in the playoffs of the Eastern Conference or to get individual awards for their players. Instead, it is to bring Hayward back to the player he once was – or at least as close to the level as Boston is possible.

In the meantime, he will go through that mental checklist while checking off the mini milestones. And while it will not be quite the same as taking an alley or completing a chase block, one of those milestones will come through Friday's game – even if it does not come with the same pregame last season.

That is not only because of the delayed return caused by Hayward's injury, but because of the successes, both teams had him without last season. The flourishing of Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Tatum in Boston meant that both franchises had somehow succeeded in thriving without the player whose departure from one and the arrival to the other would have such a decisive influence. .

"It's just circumstances that have happened," Hayward said. "With me dealing with everything that I had to deal with, and they had a year to move on … they had a great year last year.

"I have nothing but respect for the people who are at Jazz and what they have done for me, but it is not something I have thought of."

It is difficult to blame Hayward for his preoccupation. After all, he has had more than enough to focus on his return for what will undoubtedly still be a hostile crowd in Utah.

Nothing that he hears from the stands, however, will be harder to deal with than the thoughts he had on his sleepless nights last year when he took the place with Tryndamere in the game world he had in basketball with Irving and Horford. planned. a.

"When I first started playing the game, he was someone who told people who taught me," Play like him, he's pretty easy, "Hayward said. "The more I played him, the more I liked how he played.

"You are the man who could lead your team to victory, so I liked that."

Now that he is healthy, Hayward hopes to do the same for the Celtics.