Comparing Gordon Hayward's last basket to his very first 1 with Celtics shows how his game has changed


For a glimpse of how far Gordon Hayward must travel before he's an All-Star again, it's useful to compare his very first Celtics basket to his most recent one.

Opening night in 2017 is memorable for one event and one event only -- Hayward being knocked off balance while soaring for an alley-oop and snapping his ankle in Cleveland. What looked like a career-threatening injury has instead become a career-altering one, and we won't know how the story ends until next year at the earliest, after Hayward can spend an entire summer working on his game.

In the meantime, we're left to bemoan what might have been, a difference that crystallized midway through the fourth quarter of Sunday's 115-104 loss to the Rockets.

Hayward may have only scored six points, but he was effective during the run that cut Houston's lead from 22 to 10, contributing four points, two rebounds and three assists. He helped the Celtics bench compile a plus-10.

His final hoop looked a lot like his only basket of 2017, but with a couple of glaring differences. A year and a half ago, Hayward made an aggressive cut into the lane from the right wing, took a pass from Al Horford, stopped on a dime, and elevated over Jae Crowder for an effortless 10-footer.

Since it's his only highlight that year we can watch without experiencing PTSD, it's worth noting what a challenge he is to guard. Knowing Hayward's ability to score at the rim, Crowder sells out to beat him to the spot, leaving himself vulnerable to Hayward's instant change of direction for the wide-open fallaway. Easy bucket.

(Fast-forward to 1:10 mark for shot)

Now watch Hayward's last basket against the Rockets. Isolated on Houston big man Clint Capela at the top of the key, Hayward backs up, clears everyone out, and takes Capela off the dribble. We've already posted what he did to D'Andre Jordan in a similar circumstance in the playoffs only two years ago -- the rim is still rattling -- but Hayward has no hope of getting to the basket this time.

He starts left, spins back right, and sticks virtually the same fallaway as in Cleveland. This time, though, neither the elevation nor explosiveness is there. Hayward initially catches Capela off balance, for instance, but can't blow by him with the left-handed dribble, thanks in part to help from Chris Paul.

It takes determination to get back to his right hand, and Capela stays with him every step of the way, forcing Hayward to knock down a tough shot with a hand in his face.

(Fast-forward to 6:44)

A year and a half ago, that shot looked easy. On Sunday, it pushed him to the limit.

And that's a capsule view of the difference between Hayward pre- and post-injury. Celtics fans can only hope a normal summer helps him rediscover what's missing in time for next season.