Gordon Hayward's time in Boston has been defined by the amount of games he’s missed but, on a night where the Celtics absolutely needed a win to keep alive hopes of playing on a title stage, Hayward returned to the court after a month absence and stabilized this team.
Despite limited on-court work coming back from a grade III ankle sprain, Hayward logged 30 minutes, 30 seconds of floor time in Saturday’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. If you simply glanced at his stat line — 6 points on 2-of-7 shooting — you might be underwhelmed and yet Hayward routinely produced key moments that helped the Celtics fend off all of Miami’s charges en route to a 117-106 triumph.
“He is a stabilizing force for our team,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "He just can make the right play and make a play for somebody else at the right time. And he hit the big three as they were making a run.
"So I think he makes us better, that's for sure.”
It’ll get lost in the shuffle with Miami’s second-half surge but there was one play in the first half that best encapsulated Hayward’s presence. The Celtics had watched a 13-point lead dwindle to 3 and were in danger of allowing a double-digit lead to evaporate for the third time in as many games. Jae Crowder missed a 3-pointer that could have tied the game with under three minutes to play in the second quarter and Hayward snagged the rebound.
Bringing the ball up, Hayward noticed Miami didn’t have anyone defending the paint and accelerated while passing halfcourt. Crowder fouled from behind and a Hayward free throw helped settle Boston during a stretch in which they generated only one field goal over a five-minute span.
Teammates Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum turned the next three possessions into a layup line thanks to a couple of Brown steals and Boston got out of the first half with its lead back up to 13. It might not have happened if Hayward didn’t settle the team.
But Hayward’s impact was evident from the time he hit the floor midway through the first quarter. Shortly after checking in, Hayward split three Miami defenders with a perfect bounce pass to Daniel Theis for a dunk. A short time later, Hayward probed through traffic and hit a familiar mid-range jumper.
Hayward’s passing helped Boston thwart Miami’s 2-3 zone that had given the team fits at times during Game 2. But Hayward’s finest feed came late in the third quarter when he picked off a Tyler Herro pass and immediately launched a two-handed outlet pass to a streaking Tatum for an and-one dunk.
Early in the fourth quarter, Hayward got Herro in the air on a pump fake and hit his lone 3-pointer of the game. As Miami tried to make a final surge, Hayward drew traffic accelerating at the basket and zipped a pretty feed to Kemba Walker for a corner 3 with three minutes to play.
Hayward finished with five rebounds, four assists, three steals, and a block. The Celtics were a mere plus-1 in his court time but his presence allowed Stevens to crunch the rotation to nine players (including a first-half-only dash of Enes Kanter).
"I tried to impact our team in winning ways, whatever I could do,” said Hayward. “The first five minutes I was gassed. I’m extremely tired right now, my ankle’s pretty sore. Just proud of the way we fought, and of us getting the win.”
That Hayward was able to ramp himself back up so quickly is remarkable. Not only does the history of grade III sprains suggest a longer recovery timeline but Hayward departed the bubble, had to quarantine upon return, and only played a little bit of 3-on-3 ball in the ramp to Saturday’s game.
“[Saturday’s game was] the first time I’ve played 5-on-5 basketball, just with the way rehab had to be done here, it’s just been so different, so I haven’t had really an opportunity to get going, and I think definitely not 100 percent, but it’s kind of just what it is,” said Hayward. “We’re in the Eastern Conference finals. So I’m going to give us whatever I can. I think as we keep going, I’ll find my rhythm and get better and better. That’s the plan at least.”
Hayward’s teammates were happy to get a boost from his return.
"Gordon was great. Welcome back to Gordon,” said Brown. "Just having an extra guy who can make plays was huge for us. He had some big plays during this game and he’s only going to continue to go up.”
Echoed Walker: "It’s always good to have one of your best players back. Gordon is someone that we need. He came in and his flow and his feel for the game is just something that we missed. He was great. He made great plays down the stretch. It was really good to have him back.”
The bigger news of the night around Hayward was that he admitted he no longer plans to leave the bubble for the birth of his family’s fourth child. Hayward would have been subject to a four-day quarantine upon return if he departed the bubble again but said he’ll instead stick with the team.
"I think that, obviously, wasn’t in the plan, getting injured, going back to Indianapolis for treatment,” said Hayward. "I trust those guys with everything back there. Obviously, a little bit lucky that [wife] Robyn was there already in Indy so I got a chance to be at home and get great treatment but that wasn’t in the plan.
"Robyn could be having a baby at any point in time so I think it’s probably something that I’ll be here and, by the time I get back, I might miss the birth if she just goes in and rushes into the hospital. So we discussed it, we prayed about it, and I think it’s probably best if I stay here and help our team.”
That’s monster news for a Celtics team trying to claw their way out of a 2-0 hole. If Hayward had been available at the start of the series, Boston might not be in this predicament. But having him around for whatever happens next gives them an honest chance to rally.
Hayward will benefit from the extended break before Wednesday’s Game 4. He’ll get extra recovery time and a chance for extended practice reps that will only help him shake the limited amount of rust displayed.
The Celtics were able to trot out small-ball lineups featuring their best players with Hayward available on Saturday night. Hayward has the chance to completely swing this series, especially with the way Miami had to account for his presence on the offensive end, freeing up opportunities for Walker, Tatum, and Brown, who all finished north of 20 points.
"It meant everything (to have Hayward back),” said Tatum. “Obviously, we played a while without him. And I’ve said it before: Crazy that anyone would think we’re better without him. We’re so much better when he’s out there and so much more dynamic, so much more versatile when he’s out there.
"So it felt great to have the full team back. He played great in his first game and he’s going to continue to get better, get his feel back. So to have him back is everything.”