BOSTON — With Gordon Hayward set to return possibly as early as Monday night’s game against Cleveland, he’ll be rejoining a squad that’s playing great basketball which has them among the NBA’s top teams.
But here’s the thing.
Before suffering a fourth metacarpal fracture in his left hand which has been surgically repaired, Hayward and the Celtics were playing the best basketball of any team in the league.
Can they get back to where they were with Hayward?
If they do, look for Boston to make notable strides in the following areas of play.
Now keep in mind, even when Hayward was healthy, the Celtics weren’t exactly killin’ the game with a ton of points or red-hot shooting.
What they did more than anything else was create a pick-your-poison scenario on a game-to-game basis for defenses.
While there’s some element of that still around in his absence, there’s no debate that Hayward’s presence makes Boston a much more dangerous team to defend.
And upon his return, the Celtics will be even more dangerous, thanks to the emergence of Jaylen Brown, who has been delivering All-Star quality production with Hayward out, along with the solid contributions Boston has been getting all season from Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker.
The NBA is all about creating mismatches on the floor, so teams with the ability to switch effectively on defense will find success. The return of Hayward gives Boston another body who has the size, strength and mobility to defend multiple positions.
When he was healthy, the Celtics' defensive rating of 101.5 was the fifth-best mark in the NBA, which was surprising when you consider they lost defensive anchors Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) in the offseason.
Boston’s defensive rating without Hayward dipped to 104.7, which still ranks seventh in the NBA.
And while Hayward’s defensive ability has been questioned in the past, his defensive rating of 100.6 stacks up well relative to his teammates.
If you want to win in the NBA, you better have wings — and that’s plural, not singular. And the Celtics have more than their share of talented ones, which is why the return of Hayward is so vital to the team’s overall success.
Hayward has the ability to do many things on the floor, evident by his stats this season which touch on all the key categories.
In addition to averaging 18.9 points per game, Hayward is also grabbing 7.1 rebounds to go with 4.1 assists per game.
Those are good numbers for sure.
But what makes the Celtics so dangerous is they have not one but two others delivering similar production or better from the wing position, in Jayson Tatum (21.2 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown (20.0 points, 6.9 assists).
The Celtics’ second unit has taken its share of hits this season because they don’t score as much as some — OK, most — other reserve groups. Of course that’s partly because Boston has one of the highest-scoring starting fives in the NBA, which means limited opportunities for the backups and thus, less points.
Because of that, it puts a greater premium on their bench players to come in and impact the game at the defensive end of the floor.
And the return of Gordon Hayward will provide that group some much-needed depth with what will likely be the return of defensive ace Marcus Smart back to that unit which has been solid this season.
According to hoopsstats.com, Boston has allowed opposing second units to score 33.4 points per game which is the fourth-fewest allowed in the NBA this season.
That number will likely take a drop with Smart directing that group more than he is currently.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.