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Waiting for Gordon: what Hayward could bring against the Heat

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It’s been over a month since Gordon Hayward saw the floor and the Celtics could use him now more than ever.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a month since Gordon Hayward suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain against the 76ers in Game 2 of the opening round. He’s been back to Boston to rehab, returned to the bubble, quarantined and on Wednesday, the Celtics officially listed Gordon Hayward as doubtful for Game 2 and then eventually “out” before tip off.

Shuttling him between statuses might seem like cagey posturing by the medical staff, but it’s also an indication that Hayward’s return is close. His initial prognosis was 4-6 weeks and there’s optimism that he could be back in Week 5. Former CelticsBlogger and The Athletic’s Jared Weiss reports that Hayward is looking to return tomorrow after looking good post-practice on Wednesday. Yesterday, the team officially upgraded him to “questionable.”

His return couldn’t come soon enough. Without him, the Celtics have built leads of 14 and 17, but haven’t been able to close in the fourth quarter. It’s obviously conceivable that a healthy Hayward might have tipped the balance in Boston’s favor in Games 1 & 2 and the Celtics could be the ones with a commanding 2-0 lead in the ECF. Instead, his return seems critical to tying up the series.

Since Hayward’s injury on August 17th, a hierarchy has developed in the Celtics starting lineup. The newly minted All-NBA Third Teamer Jayson Tatum has become the alpha of the group. Kemba Walker has had ups and downs, in large part because teams have specifically game planned to take him out of games. Jaylen Brown hasn’t been as efficient as he was in the regular season, but he’s still a solid 20-point scorer and the team’s most versatile one-on-one defender. Marcus Smart remains, as always, a wild card.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

They’re all different kinds of playmakers. Kemba Walker has been one of the league’s most prolific and efficient pick-and-roll point guards over the last few years (but Miami has specifically schemed against him). Jayson Tatum’s vision with all the added attention he’s garnered in the playoffs has exponentially grown after each series.

Hayward’s game, however, is more similar to Smart’s. They rarely drive and slash to the rim with speed. They’re probers, looking to carve out enough space for a mid-range shot or suck in enough of the defense to free up the perimeter. It’s a more patient and measured approach and with the Celtics struggling to find shots in crunch time, Hayward could prove to be the calming agent that he’s been all year.

Miami is armed with several sturdy wing defenders in Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala. They’re all savvy veterans who will make it difficult for Boston’s younger wings. However, it’s rare that all three share playing time with Erik Spoelstra opting to keep some combination of Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson on the floor at all times. In Games 1 & 2, Tatum was Butler’s primary assignment; Crowder covered Brown. Throw Hayward into the mix and it’s Mismatch City.

In most cases, Hayward will most likely be defended by a smaller defender like Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro; that instantly becomes a mismatch of 2020 Hayward being able to truck 2010 Hayward. Gordon’s game is very deliberate. He doesn’t dazzle defenders with his handle or quickness, but if he can get his shoulder around you, he’ll pull up from anywhere below the break for a mid-range jumper or barrel towards the rim for that slow motion fall away.

In two regular season games against the Heat (including most recently a loss in the bubble during the seeding games and late-January win in Miami without Tatum), Hayward tallied only four total assists, but that’s a little misleading. Per NBA Stats’ tracking, the Celtics took 26 shots off of Hayward passes, including 3-of-14 from behind the arc.

Six of those shots were Walker three-point attempts (made two). On catch-and-shoot threes this year, Kemba is shooting a robust 42%. When and if Hayward returns, that could alleviate the pressure on Kemba to be a playmaker and feed him easier opportunities off the ball. And while the overall percentages are low, the aggregate attempts is not and the small sample does indicate Hayward’s ability to capitalize on his size advantage and be a scorer/playmaker.

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Boston had only twelve paint touches in all of Game 1. Miami had nearly double that with 23 and outscored the Celtics 48-26 in the paint. The Celtics were able to flip the script to start Game 2 (outscoring Miami 32-18 in the paint in the first half), but that dried up after halftime when the Heat went zone.

Hayward isn’t exactly an intimidating presence, but he’ll take it into Miami’s kitchen and could be the zone buster that Boston has been missing. He’s strong enough to attack the gaps, penetrate the paint, and either find shooters or score. The Heat invert the traditional 2-3 by putting their stronger wing defenders above the break and their smaller guards working the baseline. As CelticsBlog’s Adam Spinella noted, the key to beating Miami’s zone will be getting a willing passer and shooter around the free throw line. There isn’t a better player suited for that task on the Celtics roster than Hayward.

Incorporating Hayward shouldn’t be too difficult. Even if he’s not starting and can only go in short spurts because of his conditioning, those 15-20 minutes gives Brad Stevens a unique five-tool player that Boston hasn’t had for most of the playoffs and frankly, it’s now when they’ve needed him the most.