Gordon Hayward was scheduled to return to the Disney bubble on Sunday night. His wife, Robyn, posted a farewell message on Instagram with Hayward, basketball in hand, kissing one of his three daughters. Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted over the weekend that Hayward was on his way back but was, "not going to play any time soon.”
All of which begs the question: Can the Celtics extend their season long enough to get Hayward back on the floor?
Stevens’ comments seem to confirm what’s long been suspected: Hayward won’t be back any time earlier than the Eastern Conference Finals. Hayward suffered a Grade III sprain of his right ankle in Boston’s playoff opener on August 17 and the team said he was expected to miss four weeks.
Even that timeline has seemed a bit optimistic based on the time missed by other players with similar injuries. But the fact that Hayward is returning to the bubble, where he’ll be subject to a four-day quarantine, at least offers the possibility of a return to play early next round.
The Celtics thrived in the aftermath of Hayward’s injury, dispatching the Sixers in four games and winning the first two games against the Raptors with help from some solid bench play. But Hayward’s absence has been accentuated the past two games, especially when Boston’s reserve-heavy lineups have stalled out on offense. The Celtics are missing the luxury of putting Hayward with second-unit pairings and allowing him to both make plays and be a primary scoring option in those situations.
Hayward’s absence has meant more floor time for Semi Ojeleye. That’s another muscular frame that the Celtics have been able to throw at Pascal Siakam — and OJeleye has limited Siakam to 7 points on 3-of-8 shooting in 6 minutes of matchup time, per the NBA’s tracking data — but Boston’s offense has also sputtered during Ojeleye’s floor time and his 100.6 offensive rating is nearly four points worse than the Golden State Warriors’ 30th-ranked offensive rating during the regular season.
The good news for Boston is that the Celtics have still won those bench minutes in this series. Ojeleye has a team-best plus-11.7 net rating in his 50 minutes of floor time over the past four games, aided by a stellar 88.3 defensive rating during his court time.
But Hayward’s absence is still painfully noticeable when the Celtics’ offense goes cold. There are times when the Raptors will put their energy into taking away Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, then challenge players like Ojeleye to beat them. Ojeleye is shooting just 27.8 percent overall for the playoffs and 26.7 percent on 3-point attempts. Of Ojeleye’s 15 postseason 3-point attempts, the NBA’s data has 12 of them defined as “wide open” with a socially-distanced definition of 6+ feet of space. Ojeleye has made only four of those attempts.
Again, the Celtics do not find themselves tied at 2 in this series because of Ojeleye or any other bench option they’ve had to lean heavier on without Hayward. Ultimately, it’s Boston starters that will dictate whether the Celtics win this series. But it’s undeniable that Hayward could have made that task easier. Just having to elevate Marcus Smart to the starting group eroded some of Boston’s already tenuous depth.
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As the Celtics look to steady themselves during Monday’s Game 5, it’s on Tatum, Walker, and Jaylen Brown to be better than they were on Saturday. It’s on Boston’s roster as a whole to play with more energy and hustle. The Celtics have to work harder and play tougher if they’re going to take down the defending champions.
The Celtics have to be better if they’re going to give Hayward a chance to play again.
Even if Boston advances, Hayward could miss more time later in the postseason if he departs the bubble again for the birth of his first son, something he said he planned to do before his injury.
Boston can’t be looking ahead but we can. The Heat missed a chance to close out the Bucks on Sunday night but still own a 3-1 series lead. Hayward averaged 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists in two games against the Heat this season. Only Jaylen Brown averaged more points against Miami this season. He’d be a huge luxury in a potential East Finals matchup.
The Celtics miss Hayward’s presence in this Toronto series. If Boston can’t catch itself, the team will almost certainly look back and wonder what could have been with a healthy Hayward. Unfortunately, that’s sort of the theme of Hayward's entire Celtics tenure.
But if Boston advances, there’s a chance to change that storyline. If Boston can prolong its season, a healthy Hayward would give the Celtics a chance to truly compete for a title.
The Celtics need to be better than they were the last two games to give that a chance of happening.