When Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain in Game 1 of the opening-round playoff series against the 76ers Aug. 17, there was a good chance he would not play again this season.
He was ruled out for about four weeks, and left the Orlando bubble to continue his rehabilitation at home. If or when he returned, he would have to complete a mandatory four-day quarantine. And, most importantly, the Celtics had to keep winning to make his return possible.
The Celtics swept the 76ers in four games before taking a grueling win over the Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals in seven games. Hayward returned to the bubble near the end of that series, and now he has returned to the court for limited work, with coach Brad Stevens saying multiple times he believes Hayward could be able to play at some point in this series against the Heat.
“He didn’t go through our normal practice [Monday],” Stevens said. “He went through a hard prep workout, what we call our small-group workouts after practice. He looked good when he was going through it, but there’s a big difference between doing that and actually getting into a game. I don’t know officially what that means as we move forward. But he’s getting better.”
Hayward’s situation is complicated a bit by the fact that this month his wife, Robyn, is expecting the couple’s fourth child. Hayward originally intended to leave Orlando to be with his family for the birth of his first son, and he would face another four-day quarantine upon his return. But he spent time with his family during this recent trip out of the bubble, and it’s unclear whether he is still planning to depart again.
Hayward was not available for interviews Monday, and Stevens said he wanted to keep his conversations with Hayward about that situation private. In an Instagram post last week, Robyn Hayward said the next time she saw her husband, he would not be the only boy in the family anymore.
Hayward suffered a gruesome ankle injury a few minutes into the 2017-18 season and missed the rest of the year. Last season, he mostly struggled to regain his All-Star form and was admittedly tentative at times, in part because of early uneasiness about his surgically repaired foot. But this season he thrived, averaging 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field.
The issue for Hayward and the Celtics is the timing of his potential return. In many cases, a player would come back after missing a month and have a few games to get rid of cobwebs. But the Celtics are in the conference finals, so there really will be no time for that. There is no question that Boston is a better team with Hayward on the floor, but the team has certainly found a rhythm without him in Orlando.
“[He] looked good,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “Happy to have him back, just to even be around. Obviously, we hope that he can play, get back healthy. But just to have G back around the team has been good.”
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In order to have the salary-cap space needed to sign Hayward to a four-year max-salary deal in the summer of 2017, the Celtics renounced their free agent rights to forward Kelly Olynyk.
Olynyk spent his first four NBA seasons in Boston and kept a home here after he left. But he ultimately signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Heat, and now he will face his former team with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
“Obviously, it’s way different than when I played there,” Olynyk said. “There’s only two guys who I played with that are still on that team just three years ago [Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown]. Different style, different personnel. But same coach, same philosophy, same offensive style.”
During the playoffs, Olynyk is averaging 6.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 13.1 minutes per game.
Also, former Celtics forward Jae Crowder is a starting forward for Miami, averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Crowder was acquired by the Heat in a trade with the Grizzlies last February.
“He’s shooting it great,” Stevens said. “He’s a really smart player, he’s a competitive guy, and he’s fit right in with that team.”