The Celtics currently trail the Miami Heat 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Gordon Hayward’s return to the Celtics line-up in Game 3 was much needed and well overdue, but not for the reason you might think.
Yes, offensively he has proven to be a solid contributor throughout this season, but when Hayward injured himself in Game 2 of their first-round play-off match-up against the 76ers the Celtics lacked one important part of their game: unpredictability.
In Game 3 Hayward brought back that unpredictability to the Celtics line-up without needing to shoot the ball particularly well. His off-ball decision-making both offensively and defensively lightened the load for Jayson Taytum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, who all had brilliant scoring nights.
Hayward finished with only six points off two-for-seven shooting, five rebounds and four assists, but his presence on the floor as an elite playmaker forced the Heat to defend him, making Miami defensively vulnerable and inevitably opening up the lanes for easy Celtics baskets.
His ability to spread the ball and draw defenders opened up the paint for Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter, giving them more efficient looks at the basket and more space to box out Heat big men Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk.
Defensively Hayward had the flexibility to switch screens with ease and defend reasonably well against the likes of sharpshooter Tyler Herro, Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jnr. His position on the floor on defence allowed Taytum to play as a makeshift guard at the top of the three-point line, providing the Celtics with more versatility and agility on their transitions and fast breaks.
His inclusion also allowed the Celtics to play the ‘small ball’ to great effect. When the line-up of Taytum, Brown, Smart, Walker and Hayward shared the floor for six minutes they combined for a staggering 26 points on eight-for-11 shooting.
Boston’s depth was challenged in the conference semi-finals against the Raptors and again in Games 1 and 2 of this series, with Brad Stevens being forced to start Marcus Smart and rotate the strong starting five solely with role players. Whether it be Smart or Hayward coming off the bench in Game 3, it allowed Stevens to rotate experience with experience, providing a more rounded team on the floor at all times, and it showed.
Tatum, Walker and Brown played 40-plus minutes, Smart and Hayward were in the 30s while Daniel Theis finished with 24. No other Celtic played more than nine minutes.
Hayward may not have impacted on the box score, but his inclusion and experience may be the fire starter to propel this Boston team forward and even up this series.