Gordon Hayward can lead the Celtics past the Cavaliers … eventually – SB Nation

With under four seconds remaining in an ostensibly meaningless 2014 regular season game, Gordon Hayward flared to the top of the key and received the ball. LeBron James lost his footing and fell to the ground, so Hayward came over a screen to survey the landscape.

With Tristan Thompson on him, the star forward knew just what to do. As the clock wound down, Hayward took a dribble before uncorking a step-back jumper over Thompson’s outstretched arm. Utah Jazz 102, Cleveland Cavaliers 100.

This is the outcome Boston hopes for on a grander stage

The Boston Celtics signed Hayward on July 4 to a four-year deal worth $128 million, after some fits and starts and a longer waiting period than expected. The move adds another legitimate All-Star to a Boston duo of Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford that posted the Eastern Conference’s best record last regular season.

But even with two perennial All-Stars and a talented supporting cast of young, two-way guards and wings (Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier), the Celtics were no match for the Cavaliers.

James averaged almost 30 points on 58 percent shooting to down the Celtics in five games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Each of Cleveland’s four victories were decided by double figures, including a Game 2 beatdown that featured a record 41-point halftime lead.

Boston’s only win came in Game 3, and Thomas didn’t even play. Instead, Smart scored 27 to lead six Celtics scoring in double digits.

The Celtics, who had the regular season crown, never stood a chance. With Hayward, they do.

Hayward averaged 22 points on 40 percent shooting from three to push Utah to its first playoff appearance since 2012 and its best season since Jerry Sloan was head coach. Save for Game 3 (only nine minutes played due to illness), he averaged 27 points to lead the Jazz past the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs.

Despite a valiant effort, Utah was swept by a Golden State Warriors team amid the most dominant show of playoff excellence in NBA history. Now with the Celtics, Hayward’s odds at making an NBA Finals appearance should be much better with only the Cavaliers in his path.

LeBron will be 33 in the middle of his 15th season in the NBA. As great a player as he is — and he’s an all-time great — Father Time is undefeated.

Be it age or fatigue, we saw James a half-step slower. His demands for additional playmakers were met, but to no avail. And with with a payroll full to the brim, Cleveland can only improve incrementally without trading a star for another.

Conversely, the Celtics monumentally improved by signing Hayward without giving anything in return.

They can throw different looks at James defensively, with both Crowder and Hayward as capable of defending LeBron as anyone else. Offensively, Hayward becomes an additional ball handler, capable of initiating the offense to create for himself or any one of his competent teammates.

Brad Stevens knows how to use Hayward on both ends of the floor: he did it at Butler when Hayward led the Bulldogs to their first-ever NCAA tournament championship game in 2010.

Is Hayward enough to beat Cleveland, though?

Yes, but not alone.

Hayward or not, the Celtics still need work before they can assume power as Eastern Conference champs. That’s why there was a working assumption Boston would look to pull the trigger on a Paul George trade. Acquiring George and signing Hayward in free agency would immediately shift the balance of power.

Instead, at least for the time being, Boston now has three stars to Cleveland’s three, and the clear advantage goes to Horford over Kevin Love. But the Cavaliers still have the best player in the world, and Hayward can’t push Boston past a player who’s been to seven consecutive NBA Finals.

The Celtics have stockpiled enough assets to trade most of them and still be secure for the future. GM Danny Ainge couldn’t (or wouldn’t) land George or Jimmy Butler, and Boston’s odds at dethroning James this season may suffer because of it.

But landing the biggest fish in free agency pushed the Celtics much closer. And even though it might not be this year, Boston can eventually compete for a championship with Hayward in green and white. The Celtics don’t need much more help anymore.

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