If the Boston Celtics could hold a lead, they would be up 2-0 over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. That isn't to say the Heat didn't earn their pair of wins, because they certainly did. But Boston went up 14 and 17 in Games 1, and 2, respectively, before collapsing down the stretch and losing both games. They put themselves in the best possible position to win, then wasted it away. It led to an emotional locker room after Game 2.
Game 3 is on Saturday. Gordon Hayward, who has missed all but one playoff game after spraining his ankle in the opening game of Boston's first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, appears likely to return in light of Adrian Wojnarowski's latest update.
This is obviously a big deal for the Celtics. Hayward's return will give them a top six rotation of players that surpasses any of the remaining playoff teams. He averaged a few points less than 20 points per game this season and is as reliable as they come. Boston has managed without him to this point, but his re-entry into the lineup could give the Celtics the extra advantage they need to overcome a 2-0 deficit. Or it better. If not, Boston will be going home soon.
What Hayward really brings to the table is a stabilizing force on offense. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as good as they are, are still only 23 and 22. They're learning what it takes to bring their A-game night in and night out during the playoffs. Tatum is still working towards consistently producing at the superstar level he's shown glimpses of this season. When Tatum can't get anything going and Brown isn't involved, Boston isn't doing anything on offense. Part of the excitement surrounding Kemba Walker in Celtics green was that he was supposed to be able to be the guy who steps in and makes good things happen when nobody else can. So far, he simply has not been able to do so.
Hayward, on the other hand, can and has been that guy for Boston. He's big enough to get into the lane without much trouble and decisive enough once he gets there to produce a positive play most times. He's a solid shooter and defender. In what will undoubtedly be the most important point for Boston, Hayward isn't fazed by zone defense at all. If Miami is playing zone when he finally gets minutes, Brad Stevens will place him at the free throw line in the middle of that zone and operate through him. Hayward is big enough to see every pass develop from that angle, and is a good enough shooter to just go up for the shot if it's there. He'll be a zone-buster for a team that desperately needs it.
This may as well be a win-or-go-home game for the Celtics. Coming back from 2-0 has happened with some frequency in the annals of NBA history. But going down 3-0 is a death sentence. Hayward will give Boston another dangerous wing scorer and switchable defender. But he'll need to be the burst of energy in the second and third quarters that Boston desperately needs if they want to stay in the bubble for much longer.