Turning left off Enes Kanter’s shoulder, Boston Celtics wing Gordon Hayward emerged like a craft beer enthusiast at the end of his weekend off. With the ball spiraling on his palm, he was the Celtics’ mustached offering from the basketball Gods, swerving to the middle in that slow-fast way he does — fast enough to create enough space to avoid Miami Heat defender Andre Iguodala’s patented swipe, deliberate enough to have exhausted all other options. He nailed a free-throw line jumper.
When the Celtics went down 0-2 against the Heat on Thursday, Marcus Smart went on a tirade so loud it literally leaked through the locker room halls and into the ears of reporters, triggering a news cycle of questions centered around combustibility, and who exactly the Celtics would be after the wick burned all the way down to the sticks of dynamite.
Before Saturday night’s 117-106 win answered that question and made the series 2-1, a bottled excitement surrounded Hayward’s return. If he played and if he looked anything like his regular self, he could be exactly what the Celtics have been missing: a tall playmaking wing to score, settle, and play defense. But they couldn’t expect peak Hayward after he spent a month tending to an ankle injury, and if something didn’t change, well, you know what the record says about teams that go down 3-0.
Hayward’s arrival cut through the tension like a pocket-pass evading the arms of three Heat defenders, and hitting Daniel Theis on stride unencumbered to the rim — the place no Heat player wants it to go, and the place no other Celtic can reliably place it.
“He is a stabilizing force for our team,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “He just can make the right play and make a play for somebody else at the right time.
Hayward was by no means a savior. He spent chunks of his 30 minutes winded. “I’m extremely tired right now,” he said after the game. “My ankle is pretty sore.” No one knows which version of Hayward will show up for the rest of the series. He has said himself he isn’t 100 percent. But he might not have to be. The sheer ripple effects of his presence have turned this into a series.
Gordon Hayward returned to the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
MoreWhy Hayward’s presence is so important to the Celtics
With 2:39 left in the first half, Theis checked out of the game for Smart, and for the first time in the postseason, the Celtics’ best five players took the floor together: Kemba Walker, Smart, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown — an athletic, switchy, centerless lineup that hardly played together in the regular season. On their first trip down the floor, Tatum and Brown switched a dribble hand-off between Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo (the stuff of fireworks, generally). With Brown smothering him, Butler coughed up the ball and Tatum dunked it on the other end. Miami only scored once for the rest of the half. Boston unleashed a parade of dunks.
When the same lineup played in the second half, Brown matched Adebayo’s strength down low. Tatum collected 13 defensive rebounds, a playoff career-high for him. I’m sure Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will come armed with a counter in Game 4, but if the Celtics can get away with playing five perimeter players without conceding the paint, the series could flip over on its head.
Smart toes the line of chaos and creation as the Celtics’ primary playmaker. Hayward’s return reconfigured him into his secondary creator and allowed him to expend his energy on defense, where he hounded Goran Dragic into his worst game of the series. Walker, a scoring point guard, can go back to doing what he does best.
In Hayward’s absence, his teammates expanded their roles and survived. His presence allows them to retreat back to a more comfortable posture.
The Celtics can now trot out multiple playmakers at all times, arming them with the depth and complexity required to answer a question that has been unanswerable throughout the playoffs: How do you score on Miami’s defense? Suddenly, everything feels different. A healthy Celtics team can throw unsolvable quandaries back at Miami. Hayward’s return isn’t a cheat code, but his vision gives the Celtics a roadmap.
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