On Wednesday evening, the Celtics quietly put out a new injury report that showed Gordon Hayward had been upgraded to doubtful for Thursday’s game against the Heat after being listed as out for the past month.
Rehab on his Grade 3 ankle sprain has made a lot of progress, and Hayward has now completed multiple individual workouts since returning to the Orlando bubble. He has yet to take part in a full team practice, but that might not necessarily be needed before he takes the court.
The Celtics certainly could use Hayward’s skill and playmaking in these Eastern Conference finals, but the problem is there will not be much time for him to shake off any rust. Also, because his injury was an ankle sprain, it would have been difficult to maintain his cardiovascular fitness during the break.
Hayward’s Boston tenure has been marred by injury, both massive and minor. He missed all but five minutes of the 2017-18 season after breaking his left ankle. But this year he has dealt with other setbacks, too, so perhaps those returns offer clues about what the Celtics can expect.
After Hayward broke his hand in November, he missed 13 games. His playing time was limited in his first two games back, but his shot had not abandoned him. He made 11 of 19 attempts, though he was was 0 for 4 on 3-pointers. Of course, his return came in a meaningless home game against the lowly Cavaliers, which is much different than coming back to play in the conference finals.
Hayward’s minutes likely will be limited when he returns, perhaps somewhere in the mid 20s. Coach Brad Stevens will have to decide whether to put him back into the starting lineup or bring him off the bench. Marcus Smart has been one of Boston’s best players during the postseason, and the guess here is that Stevens does not want to disturb that, at least not right away.
When Hayward returns, look for him to come off the bench to lead the second unit. His presence is unlikely to change all that much in the rotations. Stevens has been leaning on his top players for extended playing time and using his bench sparingly. A player like Semi Ojeleye would likely see a dent in his already minimal playing time, and then the other starters would likely have their minutes sliced here and there.