Hayward returns home with 20 in Celtics win

After 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, he was healthy again. He was playing in the playoffs about 20 miles away from his hometown of Brownsburg, and had his wife and three young daughters on hand for the game.

And, most importantly, his 20 points on 7 for 9 shooting — including going 3 for 3 from 3-point range — to go with three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block helped 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 starting next weekend.

Gordon Hayward came up big for the Celtics on Sunday. Jeff Haynes/NBAE/Getty Images

“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 long, as the Celtics have waxed and waned at various points, its ultimate fate has always been tied to Hayward’s play, and his progression 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 offers hope, from Boston’s perspective, that all 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 has largely (and fairly) been criticized throughout the regular season for its failures to make significant steps forward as the year has progressed, Hayward has quietly done so in the background. He’s gradually been more aggressive as the season has gone by, and some of the explosion that highlighted his game before the injuries has begun to return.

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.

And, 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 up to 10 with a minute left, ensuring 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,” 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, was 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 again struggled to score for long stretches of the game. All-Star Victor Oladipo was in the building for the first time since rupturing his quad tendon back on Jan. 26, and it was easy to think how different things might have been for the Pacers had he been healthy.

He wasn’t, though. And while Indiana deserves credit for playing hard every moment of this series, ultimately it simply couldn’t score enough to win even one of what turned out to be three toss-up games over the final three contests of the series.

“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 at all for long stretches of this series meant that they became the first team to be eliminated from these playoffs — which, in turn, meant the Celtics could begin to look ahead to their inevitable matchup with Milwaukee.

Barring a truly historic collapse, the Celtics and Bucks will kick off their series next weekend in Milwaukee, a rematch of the first round series the two teams went through last season. But while many of the same players remain on both sides from last year’s showdown, the differences in both sides 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, as well as signing Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova in free agency and trading for Nikola Mirotic prior to February’s trade deadline en route to having the NBA’s best record.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have both Irving and Hayward at their disposal after each 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 the doors for the likes of Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to take significant steps forward far earlier than anticipated.

One of the major themes of this season has been the difficulties the Celtics have had trying to get that depth they have at their disposal working in harmonious fashion on the court. But, ultimately, for Boston to get where it wants to go, it will need Hayward 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.”

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