ORLANDO — As the Celtics' Game 3 performance showed, Gordon Hayward’s importance to the team and how he impacts the offense’s efficiency is unquestioned. Hayward’s versatility, and his ability to stabilize the offense, makes the Celtics a better team.
And the team was heartened to know Hayward will be around throughout their playoff run as he said he would not return to Boston for the possible birth of his fourth child, his first boy. Hayward Despite missing five weeks with a sprained right ankle, Hayward was effective in his first appearance.
The stat line showed 6 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, but the Celtics also regained another ball handler and playmaker to handle Miami’s difficult zone defense.
It’s been a turbulent Celtics stint for Hayward. He missed all but five minutes of his first season in 2017 with that ghastly broken tibia and dislocated left ankle. Last season was a transition year where he enjoyed his high points and some lackluster performances. He wasn’t quite as assertive physically and that affected his confidence.
He was productive this season but again injuries played a major role. He missed a month with a broken hand and then sustained some foot issues before the pandemic. When the season resumed, Hayward reported to camp completely healthy, until he badly strained his ankle in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I just tried to impact our team in winning ways, whatever I can do,” he said. “The first five minutes I was gassed. I was extremely tired. Just trying to help us offensively, somebody that can get in the paint, create, rebound, also help us trying to bring the ball up. I think if we can run, they can’t set their defense.”
The addition of Hayward to the equation is significant for the Celtics because he can do everything well. He can play point forward, taking some of the ball-handling responsibilities away from Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker. He can penetrate, has a crafty stepback jumper, and he’s a capable 3-point shooter.
The Celtics' issues with the Heat aren’t all solved with Hayward’s return, but it definitely helps as the critical Game 4 approaches Wednesday.
“Thirty minutes [of action] was a huge plus,” coach Brad Stevens said. “It was one of those deals where he looked pretty good the whole time and he asked to be taken out a few times. But I thought for the most part he looked pretty good. That now is a good thing because he knows he can do that. And it’s good that we had this little break in between.”
Stevens said he’s done with trying to incorporate particular players into the offense. During the Toronto series, the Celtics made a concerted effort to get Walker going and it may have taken shots away from some of his teammates. The Celtics hope Hayward blends his own instincts into the offensive scheme. In Game 3, Hayward was 2-for-7 shooting, on mostly good looks at the basket. He converted a midrange jumper and a 3-pointer.
“As far as incorporating, we need to just find the best shot for our team,” Stevens said. “That is going to be centered around our best players. But it’s not going to be like, ‘Hey we need this person to get 20 tonight.’ We’re just going to make the right play for our team. [Hayward] is good at that. He’s good playing off the ball, he’s good at cutting, good at making the next right play.”
The Heat noticed Hayward’s presence also. They noticed the impact he had on the Celtics’ offensive philosophy.
“Our defensive assignments on that end of the court with Gordon Hayward are the same, we just have to continue to make it hard,” Miami forward Jae Crowder said. “He’s a respectable player in this league. He’s an offensive threat. We know it. But we want to continue to wear [Hayward] down as much as possible, give them a lot of different looks and have nothing come easy for him. We know he can get it going, we just don’t want him to get it going at all on us. He’s definitely a focal point on what we’re trying to do on that end of the court.”
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra recruited Hayward vigorously three years ago as a free agent. But Haywardchoose to be reunited with his college coach, Stevens, with the Celtics in what he said was a tough decision. Spoelstra wouldn’t answer whether he believes Hayward is the same player now than he was three years ago because of his numerous injuries. But he still views the former All-Star as a considerable threat.
“He’s been a No. 1 guy before and he can make plays and make the right basketball reads,” Spoelstra said. “We want him, even as competitors, to be out there. We are going to get tested and we have to find a way to overcome it against a good team and good players.”
The Celtics won’t make any promises about this series after Hayward’s return, but they do feel better and more complete with him being back and able to contribute. He has always wanted to live up to his maximum contract but injuries prevented that but maybe it’s no coincidence he returned just in time for the most important game of the Stevens Era, and factored in prolonging the series for the Celtics.
“I’ve try to get myself ready to play in the Eastern Conference Finals and that’s something that’s daunting for sure,” Hayward said. “Not putting any pressure on myself, just trying to help us win basketball games. I’m definitely not 100 percent. We’re in the Eastern Conference Finals and I’m going to give whatever I can. As we keep going, I’ll find my rhythm and be better and better. That’s the plan.”