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Gordon Hayward makes first return to Utah since leaving Jazz in free agency

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Two seasons in the making, Gordon Hayward‘s return to Utah will finally go down Friday night, giving Jazz fans the first chance to let their collective feelings known.

Hayward bolted from the Jazz to the Celtics as a free agent following the 2016-17 season in a somewhat awkward departure that much of Salt Lake City learned about in the forward’s own story written in the Player’s Tribune.

Rejection letters sting, no matter the format.

Gordon’s presence Friday, after seven seasons with the Jazz, will be more than just a side note when the Celtics play in Utah on Friday night. At least call it equal billing with the Celtics’ curious play of late, their first-half struggles and late rally Thursday at Phoenix notwithstanding.

Hayward’s much-anticipated return did not happen last season after the Butler product was injured in the Celtics’ season opener and he missed the remainder of the year.

“Obviously he did so much for this organization, for this state,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell told reporters after Wednesday’s victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “He’s a great player.”

Mitchell has become the main object of affection for Jazz fans these days. His 23-point performance Wednesday, with multiple highlight-reel dunks, is evidence as to why.

But taking over the star-player throne from Hayward has not been easy. Hayward averaged 15.5 points per game in his seven years in Utah, but that final season he poured in 21.9 per game and became an All-Star. Then poof, he was gone.

“Gordon, he’s a good guy. It is what it is,” the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert said, according to the Deseret News. “Sometimes you make choices that you think are good for you and we’re not here to judge anyone. It’s just a game. We’re just going to go play basketball and that’s it.”

As far as the game goes, the Celtics will arrive in Utah with a positive outlook after that rally to defeat the Suns on Thursday, but needed overtime to do it on the first night of back-to-backs. It was a remarkable turnaround in a game where only one starter — Kyrie Irving — scored a point in the first half as Boston trailed by 20 points after two quarters.

The Jazz, is also feeling a whole lot better about its situation after a convincing victory Wednesday that ended a four-game skid.

Mitchell was able to get things going for the Jazz after returning from an ankle injury. He sat out two of the Jazz’s previous three games.

The Jazz will try to figure out a way that Mitchell can expose the Celtics’ defense much like Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray did, when he scored 48 points against Boston this week. Celtics players bristled when Murray tried to pass the 50 mark on a long 3-pointer at the buzzer of a game that had long been decided.

“We stopped moving the ball, we started settling, a lot of iso stuff,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said after Monday’s defeat, according to the Boston Globe. “Missing some easy ones. We still could have won this game. We just have to find ways to win when it comes down to the end, rebounds, stops. That mentality is going to get you a W.”

It got better Thursday at Phoenix, but only in the second half. Not only did the Celtics erase that 20-point deficit after the break, they had a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter before forcing overtime and earning a 116-109 victory.

Even with Hayward playing again, the Celtics are in somewhat of a transition period. Hayward still has not come close to returning to the player he was during his Utah days and has been on monitored minutes. Irving is also returning from a knee procedure in April that ended his season and he played 43 minutes Thursday.

The Celtics are expected to be a force in the Eastern Conference, but are only 7-4 as they search for consistency. They have been solid overall on defense, entering play Thursday third best in the NBA after allowing 101.3 points per game. But have been vulnerable in key stretches, leading to defeats such as Monday when Murray ushered them out of Denver.

“We tried a lot of different guys, a lot of different coverages, we tried to go small and switch, tried to do a lot of different things,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, according to nba.com. “He pretty much cooked us all night. He had a heck of a game.”

Reggie Bullock game-winner gives Pistons coach Dwane Casey victory in return to Toronto

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Revenge is a dish best served with two seconds left in a tie game.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey – certainly not thrilled with the Raptors firing him earlier this year – guided his new team to a 106-104 win in his return to Toronto tonight. Detroit erased a 19-point second-half deficit and got the ball with two seconds left, giving Casey and Reggie Bullock chances to shine.

Casey drew up a great play, an alley-oop to Glenn Robinson III. But Pascal Siakam made an even better play to knock the ball out of bounds.

The Pistons’ second play of the possession proved even more effective, as Bullock slipped toward the rim and hit the game-winner.

What a satisfying victory for Casey.

Reports: Steve Kerr chose and Warriors players supported suspending, not fining, Draymond Green

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The Warriors suspended Draymond Green one game for his argument with Kevin Durant during and after Golden State’s loss to the Clippers on Monday.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

Jackie MacMullan on ESPN:

What about an internal fine? And what I was told this morning was that the rest of the players on this team didn’t support that, that the rest of the players on the team felt this had to be to done and that they’re all prepared, on that plane ride to Houston today, to get those guys together and put this behind them for now.

Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

Green was surprised by the heavy-handedness. A fine was expected. Green had just come back from injury, giving him a rest day for Tuesday’s game against Atlanta and a private fine would have been an acceptable rebuke of his behavior. He was fined a few thousand dollars when he went after Kerr in the locker room in Oklahoma City in 2016. He didn’t think this incident was nearly as bad, so the punishment being drastically worse was shocking.

I wonder whether Green will feel as if the Warriors are ganging up on him. Many see his suspension as Golden State’s attempt to appease Durant before free agency, and the original issue escalated because Green thought there was already too much emphasis on Durant’s free agency. This could push a stubborn Green deeper into a corner.

Or he could realize his peers wanted him suspended and see that as a wakeup call. He might put more stock in that than Kerr’s point of view.

It’s too early to determine how this will go, but the starting point is apparently a divide between Green and everyone else.

Kyrie Irving, teammate of 12-year-veteran Al Horford: Celtics need 14- or 15-year veteran for leadership

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The Celtics just had a 1-4 road trip, the lone win coming in overtime against the lowly Suns. Most Boston players (except Marcus Morris and, lately, Kyrie Irving) look out of sorts offensively.

Irving, via Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston:

Looking at this locker room, me being in my eighth year and being a ‘veteran’ as well as Al [Horford] and [Aron] Baynes. Right now I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet, a 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it’s a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint, when you want to play, when you want to do what you want to do.

Al Horford is in his 12th season. His team, the Hawks then Celtics, have made the playoffs every season of his career.

I’m not sure Irving intended this as a slight of Horford. Irving certainly didn’t forget about Horford, whom Irving mentioned the sentence prior.

But I’d definitely understand if Horford felt slighted. He’s experienced enough to provide that veteran leadership. So is Irving for that matter.

Ultimately, these comments might prove benign, just more weird words from Irving. Still, they’re potentially significant enough to keep an eye on Boston’s leadership situation.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns: ‘I’m not one of the most important [players on the team]. I’m just a piece on this team’

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Jimmy Butler made the Timberwolves his team. He willed himself into being their best player despite having teammates with more talent and physical skills. He took a leadership position by talking over everyone (for better or worse). He even asked for top-contract status with a renegotiation-and-extension that would have required gutting the rest of the roster.

With Butler traded to the 76ers, who takes up the mantle in Minnesota?

Karl-Anthony Towns is the logical candidate. He’s now the Timberwolves’ best player. He just signed a max contract extension that will hit super-max salaries if he makes an All-NBA team this season. He’s even already one of Minnesota’s longest-tenured players.

Kent Youngblood of the StarTribune:

Karl-Anthony Towns took issue with the idea that, with Butler gone, he had to become the team’s leader.

“First of all, I’m not one of the most important [players on the team],’’ he said. “I’m just a piece on this team. Everyone is just as important as the next. So if everyone’s doing their job and everyone is working hard, doing the little things, we make a great product.

Somewhere, Butler is cackling, assured his doubts about Towns were correct.

But leading isn’t for everyone. That doesn’t make non-leaders bad people. The world needs followers, too.

That said, things generally flow much more smoothly on teams where the best player is the main leader. It creates an orderly culture. If Towns doesn’t want that role, it’ll be something for the Timberwolves to overcome.

Maybe Towns, 22, will grow into it. There’s still plenty of time left for him to develop both as a player and person.

But Butler’s exit created a natural entrance for Towns into leadership. Towns could have seamlessly seized the reigns right here. That he isn’t shows how far he is as a leader.