ORLANDO — He went 32 days without playing a basketball game after suffering an ankle injury in the first game of the playoffs.
So when Gordon Hayward returned to the Celtics’ lineup on Saturday night for the first time since Aug. 17, there was some huffing and puffing taking place.
“The first five minutes hit me, for sure,” said Hayward, after helping the Celtics win Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, 117-106, over the Miami Heat. “That’s the first time I’ve played five-on-five basketball (since the injury).
“It definitely felt weird out there. It’s been four or five weeks since I played basketball. It was really fun to be back out there with the team, with the guys.
“I just tried to impact our team in winning ways, whatever I could do. The first five minutes, I was gassed. I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle’s pretty sore, but I’m proud of the way we fought.”
The Celtics, after kicking away leads of 14 and 17 points in the opening two games of the series last week, needed a lift, and the return of Hayward helped provide just that.
He played 30:30, roughly 15 minutes in each half, and helped open up an offense that was struggling against the Miami zone defense. Hayward’s shot was off (going 2 for 7 with one 3-pointer in three tries), but he grabbed five rebounds to go with four assists and three steals while turning the ball over just once.
The presence of Hayward, who came off the bench for the first time this season, complicated things for the Heat on defense and freed up space for players like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to operate.
“Gordon was great,” said Brown. “Welcome back to Gordon. Just having the extra body, another guy who can make plays was huge for us. He had some big plays and he’s only going to continue to go up.”
Said Tatum: “It meant everything. We’re so much better when he’s out there. We’re so much more dynamic, so much more versatile when he’s out there. It felt great to have our full team back and he played great in his first game. To have him back is everything.”
Hayward was hurt in the final minutes of Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers five weeks ago Monday night when he stepped on the foot of teammate Daniel Theis.
The diagnosis was a grade 3 right ankle sprain, which included a torn ligament. Hayward left the Disney World bubble to be with his family in Indianapolis and receive treatment, returning to Florida earlier this month.
The original plan was for Hayward to depart Disney World when his wife, Robyn, gives birth to their fourth child, a son, later this month. But Hayward said he will be remaining with the Celtics until their stay in the playoffs is over.
“That obviously wasn’t in the plan, getting injured, going back to Indianapolis for treatment,” said Hayward. “I trust those guys with everything back there. I was a little bit lucky that Robyn was there already in Indy, so I got a chance to be at home and get great treatment. But that wasn’t in the plan.
“Robyn could be having the baby at any point in time, so I think it’s probably something I’ll be here. By the time I get back, I might miss the birth if she goes in and rushes to the hospital. We discussed it, we prayed about it and I think it’s probably best if I stay here and help our team.”
The Celtics, who don’t resume the series with the Heat until Wednesday night, will have a few days to get Hayward some rest so that the ankle can improve a bit more.
The return of Hayward, who had a solid regular season, gives the Celtics an in-series boost. He gets the ball moving, finds players in the right spots and can make a zone less effective.
“Me personally, just trying to help us offensively being somebody who can get in the paint, create and help us rebound and bring the ball up,” said Hayward.
Hayward wasn’t able to play in a full-court scrimmage before returning to the Celtics’ lineup, so that made it a bit difficult.
He went into the game on three different occasions in the first half and four times in the second half, asking out for a breather once in a while. Coach Brad Stevens was able to play him 30 minutes since the team has time off in between games due to Monday night’s football game.
It has been a hectic time for Hayward with his wife ready to give birth at any time, with the injury taking him out of action for almost five weeks and now with a return in the middle of the conference finals.
“This has been something I’ve never dealt with as far as it all together,” said Hayward late Saturday night. “There’s a lot that’s going on for me individually, for my family and then the rehab, with corona and the bubble and trying to do the best that I can to not have to quarantine for that many days.
“I basically had to take five days off from treatment and rehab to try to get myself ready to play in the Eastern Conference finals. That’s something that’s a daunting task, for sure. I’m definitely not 100 percent. But it’s the Eastern Conference finals. I’m going to give us whatever I can.
“As we keep going, I’ll find my rhythm and be better and better.”
By Jim Fenton, The Enterprise