The Boston Celtics will begin the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night against the Miami Heat, and as they have been for most of the playoffs, they'll be without Gordon Hayward. Early on Monday evening, the team officially confirmed that, as expected, Hayward will not be available for Game 1.
Hayward suffered a nasty sprained ankle late in the Celtics' Game 2 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in their first-round series. His initial timeline was approximately four weeks after the team diagnosed it as a Grade 3 sprain. He left the bubble for a short time during his rehab, but has since returned and cleared quarantine.
Since getting back to the bubble, Hayward has continued to increase his activity, and went through a workout after the Celtics' practice on Monday. Coach Brad Stevens said that Hayward "looked good," but is not sure about an exact return date just yet. However, Hayward is expected to return during this series.
The Celtics have played much of the postseason without Hayward, including the entire second-round series against the defending champion Toronto Raptors, so it's clear they can have success without him. But that doesn't mean they won't be eager to have him back.
This was a major bounce-back season for Hayward, who looked far more comfortable and explosive than he did last season in his return from a gruesome ankle injury. He put up 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game in the regular season, while shooting 50 percent from the field; the only other Celtic to ever put up those numbers was Larry Bird.
Versatile and unselfish, it was little surprise that Hayward was a part of the Celtics' best lineups all season long, and when he was on the floor, they outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. He can take over playmaking duties from Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, and is just as comfortable spotting up and playing off the ball. When he's on the floor with the starting lineup, it's much more difficult for teams to double Walker or Tatum than when Marcus Smart -- a much less reliable outside shooter -- is out there.
And though he's not elite at the defensive end, he's another big wing defender for Brad Stevens to deploy, who can switch and guard multiple positions. Plus, his return will make the Celtics a deeper team, allowing Smart to return to his more natural sixth-man role, and meaning less minutes for the likes of Semi Ojeleye and Brad Wannamaker.
In short, Hayward makes the Celtics better, and will increase their chances of getting to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.