Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Gordon Hayward engaged in “a couple of non-contact, very light drills” during the team’s workout Sunday and, while Stevens didn’t have a firm timeline on when Hayward might return to game action, he reaffirmed that he expects Hayward to be available during the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat.
“Since I’ve seen him last, it’s good progress, but I haven’t seen him for two-and-a-half, three weeks,” said Stevens. "Other than that, I know he feels better. He’s worked hard to get to where he is and I think he’ll play at some point in this series. As far as predicting a timeline, I have no idea. But I feel like he’s made good progress and will play eventually.”
Hayward’s presence could be vital in a series in which Boston’s wing players have the potential to put a lot of stress on Miami’s perimeter defense.
Hayward has been sidelined since mid-August with a grade III ankle sprain suffered in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series versus the Philadelphia 76ers. Hayward initially departed the bubble but returned last week. He cleared quarantine on Friday and engaged in some light shooting before Boston’s Game 7 win over Toronto.
The lingering uncertainty around Hayward’s status seems to suggest that he’s unlikely to be available when Boston and Miami tip off the series with Tuesday’s Game 1. That’s not totally unexpected given that the Celtics suggested a four-week recovery timeline, one that wouldn’t hit until later this week, and even that seemed optimist based on past examples of that same injury.
But if Hayward is able to join this series in progress, it could be quite the boost for Boston, especially considering the success he had against Miami during the regular season.
Hayward’s presence would put additional stress on Miami’s perimeter defenders, especially when the Heat already have to worry about the trio of Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown. Suddenly Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson is tasked with checking a player of Hayward’s stature.
Robinson took on that assignment most often during the regular season and Hayward generated 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting with three shooting fouls drawn over a mere 5 minutes, 20 seconds of matchup time, per the NBA’s tracking data. It’s easier for Miami to hide Robinson if Hayward is available.
Sure, Marcus Smart can make those defenders pay if he shoots like he did in Round 2 against Toronto but Hayward’s presence just adds another offensive weapon who can also create for others — especially reserve pairings — when he’s on the court.
As of last week, Celtics brass were still uncertain if Hayward was planning to depart the bubble for the birth of his fourth child, something that he had planned to do before his injury. That adds another potential wrinkle to his availability this round. But, like Stevens noted Sunday, the expectation was that Hayward would be available at some point this round.
The bottom line is that Hayward is a skilled player who simply makes Boston more dangerous, particularly because Boston is so thin on experienced perimeter depth beyond its starters. The team got decent minutes from Semi Ojeleye in Round 2 but a healthy Hayward makes Boston that much more versatile. Remember, too, that Hayward was playing at a very high level before the ankle injury.
What’s more, Hayward averaged 22 points per game against Miami during the regular season, the second-highest total on the team behind only Brown (24.7). All this while shooting 55.6 percent overall despite his 3-point shot defying him (14.3 percent).
A healthy Hayward simply makes Boston a tougher team to defend and, in a series that could be defensive-minded, he could be key to ensuring Boston’s success.