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Boston Celtics

NBA Playoffs 2020: The Boston Celtics need Gordon Hayward now more than ever

The Boston Celtics could be up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals just as easily as they are down 2-0.

Blowing double-digit leads in each of the first two games of the series, the Miami Heat have out-hustled the Celtics for 48 (and some change) minutes in back-to-back games to give themselves a commanding lead.

With Boston on the brink of the infamous 3-0 deficit that no NBA team has ever come back from, Game 3 becomes a must-win if the Celtics are going to continue their push for their first NBA Finals appearance since 2010.

There's been a common thread in Games 1 and 2 (aside from the double-digit comebacks) that have placed Boston in this situation: Miami's 2-3 zone defence. Our Scott Rafferty analyzed that issue in detail, and it's been a glaring weakness for Boston's offence all season.

But luckily for the Celtics, they still haven't used all the cards up their sleeve. They still have a weapon stored away that could present itself at any moment now, as former All-Star forward Gordon Hayward's return is on the horizon.

Hayward, who suffered an ankle injury in the Celtics' first game of the postseason and has been out since, was upgraded to "doubtful" before Game 2. While that wasn't much of an update, it showed he was getting closer to returning to the floor. The Athletic's Jared Weiss confirmed that following Thursday's loss, stating that Hayward is "progressing toward a return for Game 3," adding that he felt good after Wednesday's practice and will "get more on-court work Friday with the hope of playing Saturday."

On Saturday, head coach Brad Stevens confirmed pregame that he'll be available off the bench on a "minutes monitoring."

It will surely take some time for Hayward to get back into the flow of things after missing one month of action, but he immediately helps Boston take steps toward breaking that impenetrable zone defence.

His 19.0 points per game in the bubble speaks for itself, giving the Celtics an extra scoring threat that the Heat will have to worry about. He can shoot from the perimeter (converting 38.3% of his 3s this season), he's a solid slasher with the ball and cutter without the ball, and he's a strong midrange shooter, pairing well with sharp playmaking skills that should help dissect that zone.

Most importantly, Hayward loves working in the soft spot of the 2-3 zone (right at the foul line), which should give Miami's defence more trouble than its seen thus far.

In Games 1 and 2, the Celtics elected to go with Marcus Smart or Daniel Theis to try and pierce the heart of that zone. Smart's passing makes him an OK option for that middle spot, but he's better off on the perimeter, where he's converting 42.1% of his 3s this series. The Heat will live with him or Theis taking that midrange pull-up, whereas it becomes a much more efficient source of offence for Boston with Hayward taking that shot.

According to NBA Stats, Hayward shot 49.3% on midrange jumpers and 43.4% on shots in the paint (non-restricted area) this season. Having him in the middle will prevent the zone's two defenders up top from expanding so far out, shrinking that long and athletic defence even just a tad bit more.

The Heat will be forced to collapse on Hayward, where he can showcase his playmaking ability to find open shooters on the perimeter. That makes Miami much more reliant on perfect and quick rotations to challenge Boston's 3-point shooters.

If the Heat's defenders don't collapse on him or the centre (typically Bam Adebayo) doesn't take a step up, Hayward will gladly take looks like the one below over and over again.

Even though he misses that particular jumper, it's a shot Miami is much less likely to live with compared to Smart or Theis pulling up from there. Even when Hayward attacks from the perimeter, he has no problem stopping short of that centre defender for little pull-up jumpers like this one against the Heat earlier this season:

The Celtics have been dependent on quick passes for (often contested) 3-pointers, which has also developed into bad decisions for live ball turnovers or long rebounds going the other way to spark Miami runs off of offensive droughts. Having someone that can hit shots like the ones above makes that zone defence much more vulnerable than it has been so far.

Hayward's return isn't just a luxury for Boston, it's essential for them to keep their season alive in trying to even the series.

The Celtics need Gordon Hayward now more than ever if their title pursuit is going to continue.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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