SALT LAKE CITY — Vivint Arena was relatively quiet roughly an hour before tip-off as Gordon Hayward participated in pregame warm-ups while fans were still piling in their seats.
Fourteen-year-old Maui Stucker was one of the few who watched in awe with her Boston Celtics Hayward T-shirt, while holding up a white sign with green letters that read: “#20 Hayward Wherever U Go I’ll Follow (heart sign), Your #1 Fan.”
“I love Hayward,” the smiling ninth grade Fairfield Junior High School student said.
But once the team warm-ups and player introductions were announced ahead of Friday’s Utah Jazz-Boston Celtics matchup, there was a completely different tone throughout the arena for Hayward’s first time back in Utah.
The 21-second Twitter video that the Jazz released earlier in the day didn’t matter.
Neither did Hayward’s pregame statement released in advance.
“I fully expect Jazz fans to bring their A-game tonight, but before we play, thank you to everyone in Utah who supported me, especially during my recovery,” Hayward wrote via Twitter beforehand. “I can’t tell you how much it means. And now: Game on.”
And yes they were.
Literally, every single time Hayward touched the ball, had his name announced or was spotlighted on the jumbotron, a choir of boos showered throughout the arena. Utah picked up its second straight home win in the process, beating Boston 123-115, without All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who missed the action to attend his grandfather’s memorial service.
“It was fun,” said Hayward, who ended with 13 points and seven assists on 3-for-9 shooting in 25 minutes. “It was good to see just the people walking in, see some of the people around the arena, the staff over there and some of the players. I wish we would’ve won the game but it was good to see everybody.”
One guy even showed up in a No. 20 Hayward Jazz jersey with “Coward” spelled out on the back to replace his last name. Hayward scored his first bucket off a fastbreak layup off an assist from Jaylen Brown at 10:37 in the opening quarter.
Hayward said he wasn’t surprised by the fan treatment. Although 16 months have passed since he announced his decision to leave Utah for Boston through free agency on July 4, 2017, fans were still upset. It was so bad at times that even Hayward found humor in how persistent they were all throughout the game.
“I kind of expected some of that,” Hayward said of the fan treatment. “It’s part of the game and I think that they were booing me from the get go so it’s part of the game.”
Hayward said he caught up with his former Jazz teammate and close friend Joe Ingles — who tied his career-high of 27 points versus Boston. He also briefly chatted with Jazz owner Gail Miller and several front office members.
The Jazz led by as many as 20 in the third quarter, but Boston continued to fight, trimming the deficit to 100-96 after a 16-7 run to start the fourth quarter capped by a three from Terry Rozier at 7:48.
Boston would again get within four late in the fourth, but Utah always found a way to hold them off despite 22 points and six rebounds from Rozier and a 21-point, five-steal, four-assist performance from Jayson Taytum.
The Celtics (7-5) were coming off a late overtime win at Phoenix on Thursday night on the fourth stop of a five-game road trip as Hayward is still under a strict restriction in the 23-26 minute range after badly injuring his left ankle in the season opener and missing all of last year.
“Just tried to prepare for it like I prepare for every game,” said Hayward, who spent seven seasons in Utah after being drafted in 2010. “We were on a back-to-back so not that much time to think about it.
“I really just focused on some of our game plan execution stuff, which we didn’t end up doing that great but I had my wife here, which was good to have her,” he said. “I know everyone’s excited to see her here so I just went into it looking to have some fun.”
In addition to Ingles’ 27 points, he also dished out seven assists with five rebounds. With his fifth 3-pointer of the night at 9:25 in the third, Ingles jumped to sixth-place on the Jazz’s all-time three-pointers made list (512), passing former Utah guard Deron Williams in the process.
Jazz star Donovan Mitchell posted 15 of his 21 points in the second half along with five assists, Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio both finished with 17 points apiece with Gobert grabbing 15 rebounds and two blocks and Rubio dishing out seven assists and six rebounds.
Jae Crowder was also huge off the bench with 20 points, six rebounds and four assists against his former Celtics team. Derrick Favors finished with 14 points and six rebounds on 5-for-5 shooting as the Jazz went 55.8 percent from the field.
Through 12 games, Hayward is still struggling to find his rhythm with nightly averages of 9.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists, but the Celtics are committed to his progress.17 comments on this story
“I think obviously Gordon’s transitioning back into playing and transitioning back with us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Hayward. “He’s still on a minutes restriction. I think one of the things we’ve got to do a better job of as a group is put all of our guys in position to be more successful within their strengths.
“He brings a lot of strengths to the table off general actions and pick and rolls where he can be the playmaker for others as well as himself and I think that early on I think we’ve done a decent job but I think we could do a lot better as a staff in helping so hopefully that’ll be the case and we didn’t expect this to be an overnight thing.”