Playoffs 2020 | East Finals: (3) Celtics vs. (5) Heat

Gordon Hayward returns to Celtics’ rotation in Game 3

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Gordon Hayward has been part of Boston teams that have made the Eastern Conference finals twice in the past three seasons.

He finally got to play in that playoff round.

Hayward returned to the Celtics’ rotation in Game 3 of their East title series against the Miami Heat on Saturday night, after missing a month while recovering from a right ankle sprain. It was his first time in an East finals game; he was inactive for all seven Boston games in the 2018 series and the first two this year, both times because of injuries.

Hayward had six points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in 31 minutes, and Boston won 117-106.

“I think it was really fun to be back out there with the team, with the guys,” Hayward said. “I just tried to impact our team in winning ways, whatever I could do.”

Hayward checked in with 5:06 left in the opening quarter and finished with finished with six points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals.

“He can score the ball. He can switch all the different positions. He gives us a lot of defensive flexibility there. He just gives us a lot,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And I think that he’s always been a guy that provides a great sense of stability.”

Hayward played 34 minutes in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series against Philadelphia when he hurt the right ankle. The Celtics said Hayward would be out at least four weeks with what they said was a Grade III sprain, the most severe level; his absence was about 4 1/2 weeks, so he was right on the envisioned schedule.

“We don’t expect him to be a world-beater, but I think his presence helps us,” Stevens said.

Hayward had a strong season for the Celtics, averaging 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists on exactly 50% shooting. Hayward was only the second Boston player to have those numbers, or better, over a full season; Larry Bird is the other, and he did it five times for the Celtics.

The Celtics’ win Saturday cut Miami’s lead in the series to 2-1. Game 4 isn’t until Wednesday, so Hayward gets plenty of recovery time.

“I’m extremely tired right now,” Hayward said postgame. “My ankle’s pretty sore.”

Hayward was a top target of Miami in the free agency summer of 2017 before he chose the Celtics. Boston went to the East finals in his first season there, but he played only five minutes of the first regular-season game before his year ended with a terrible injury — a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia. The Celtics lost that East title series to Cleveland in seven games.