INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard to imagine how Easter Sunday could’ve gone much better for Gordon Hayward.
The Boston Celtics forward missed last year’s playoff run because of the gruesome, season-ending leg and ankle injuries he suffered six minutes into the season opener in Cleveland, but this time, he was healthy. He was playing in the playoffs about 20 miles from his hometown of Brownsburg, Indiana, and he had his wife and three daughters on hand for the game.
He also had 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting — including 3-for-3 from 3-point range — to go with three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block to help propel the Celtics to a 110-106 victory over the Indiana Pacers. The win completed a four-game sweep for Boston, sending it into an all but certain and highly anticipated matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals beginning next weekend.
“Yeah, there’s nothing worse than sitting there and not be able to play in the playoffs especially,” Hayward said. “So to be able to be with my teammates, be a part of something like this where we got a chance to sweep the Pacers, after everything that happened last year, it makes it all worth it — no doubt.
“And it’s just the beginning for us. We still got a lot of work to do.”
All season, as the Celtics have waxed and waned, their fate has always been tied to Hayward’s play and his progress back from the injuries and subsequent surgeries that cost him a year of his basketball life. Sunday’s performance was the latest example of that — and it offered hope, from Boston’s perspective, that what the Celtics hoped to accomplish when this season began is still in front of them.
The irony of this Celtics season is that while the team was largely (and fairly) criticized throughout the regular season for its failure to make significant steps forward as the season progressed, Hayward quietly did so in the background. He became gradually more aggressive as the season went on, and some of the explosiveness of his game before the injuries has returned.
That was certainly on display in this one, particularly when Hayward brought the ball up the court, took off and threw down a vicious slam dunk, even though it was waived off thanks to an offensive foul on Aron Baynes. Two or three months ago, such a play wouldn’t have been in Hayward’s arsenal.
When the Celtics needed to close the Pacers out, there was Hayward scoring all nine of his points to help push Boston’s lead from four points with five minutes to go to 10 points with a minute left, ensuring that there would be no need for this series to go back to Boston for a fifth game.
It also meant that the Celtics improved to 7-0 this season when Hayward scores at least 20 points — another indicator of how much it matters to Boston to get him going.
“I was just very happy for Gordon,” center Al Horford said. “[With] all the adversity that he’s faced, to be able to come over here in such an important game and give us such a big lift, big shot after big shot, here in Indiana … I was so hyped for him and glad that we were able to close it out.
“He’s one of the main reasons why.”
Game 4, like the rest of this rock fight of a series, was a confusing one to decipher. That the Celtics won a game in which Kyrie Irving and Horford went a combined 8-for-32 from the field, including 1-for-10 from 3-point range, is a testament to both Boston’s bench — Hayward, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier combined to go 18-for-26 from the field, including 7-for-11 from 3-point range, and scored 49 points — and Indiana’s ongoing offensive ineptitude.
Indiana barely crept over 40 percent from the field in this one, thanks to a few meaningless baskets in the final minute, and it struggled to score for long stretches of the game. All-Star Victor Oladipo was in the building for the first time since he ruptured his quad tendon on Jan. 26, and it was easy to wonder how different things might have been for the Pacers had he been healthy. While Indiana deserves credit for playing hard every moment of this series, ultimately it couldn’t score enough to win even one of what turned out to be three toss-up games in the final three contests.
“You can play all the defense you want,” Pacers center Myles Turner said. “You’ve got to put the ball in the hoop at the end of the day.”
That the Pacers couldn’t for long stretches of this series meant they became the first team eliminated from these playoffs, which means the Celtics can begin to look ahead to their likely matchup with Milwaukee.
Barring a truly historic collapse, the Celtics and Bucks will kick off their series next weekend in Milwaukee in a rematch of the first-round series the two teams went through last season. But while many of the players from last year’s showdown remain on both sides, the differences in both teams are profound.
Milwaukee, of course, changed coaches, hiring Mike Budenholzer, who implemented a system that has brought out the best in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this season’s likely Most Valuable Player. The team also signed Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova in free agency and traded for Nikola Mirotic prior to February’s trade deadline, all of which helped the team earn the NBA’s best record.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have both Irving and Hayward at their disposal after both had to watch last year’s playoffs in street clothes due to injuries. They were supposed to be the ones driving Boston forward last year and making the Celtics into a championship contender. Instead, their injuries opened doors for the likes of Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to take significant steps forward earlier than anticipated.
One of the major themes of this season has been the Celtics’ difficulty in getting the depth they have at their disposal working in harmonious fashion on the court. But ultimately, for Boston to get where it wants to go, Hayward needs to have more performances like the one he had Sunday.
“It’s been a long process to get back to where he probably feels as good as he does now,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We knew that going in. We said all year [that] every 20 games he’s going to be a little bit better, and he was big at the end of the game tonight for sure.”