In 16 minutes against the Cavaliers in Monday’s loss, Aron Baynes hauled in five offensive rebounds. The last one hit his palms by surprise, bouncing off an abundance of players piled in the post.
As he froze, like someone catching a stack of cash that fell out of the sky in disbelief, Al Horford pointed his finger toward the rim as if he was guiding Baynes to the hole in the backyard to bury it.
Those moments in a slow, dragging, muddy game that Boston could have pulled out of with a win sparked some hope, but as Baynes arrived at the line after that rebound in the fourth quarter Brad Stevens pushed to insert Marcus Morris back in the game in his place. It felt like if he would have pulled Baynes off the free throw line if he could.
While Morris struggled with foul trouble guarding LeBron James, he also fell to a team-worst -69 this postseason for Boston on the road. In limited run, lineups including Baynes, Horford, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown outscored the Cavaliers by 10 points in a game that the Celtics lost by nine, according to Jared Weiss.
The case for more Baynes minutes, averaging only 20 per game in this series, existed but faded in favor of small ball. Stevens started Tatum, Morris and Horford in the front court for the fourth straight game and lost the first quarter by 16 after falling behind 15 through 12 minutes in game three.
While the Celtics posted a -9.9 net rating this postseason when they simply place Baynes in with the starting four over Morris, combining him with Smart has paid dividends across a variety of five-man rotations that played over 13 minutes together this postseason.
Baynes over Morris and Smart over Brown rated a +8 in 49 minutes with the other three regular starters. Narrowing that down to this series, Baynes appeared in five of the Celtics’ most-used lineups and all five posted a positive net rating.
Only two of 12 Baynes lineups used against the Cavaliers through four games have been outscored per 100 possessions.
That’s no surprise after a regular season where three of Boston’s four regular rotations after Kyrie Irving went down featured Baynes and all posted positive ratings. Baynes even took the initiative to add a three-point shot, which he’s unloaded once per game in the playoffs at 52.4 percent efficiency to make himself capable on the offensive end.
Down 39-22, Baynes effectively drew Thompson far enough out of the paint in the corner on this play to remove him from pick-and-roll action for Horford.
Toward the later end of the quarter he successfully switched on to and stopped James in the half court. On another play, Baynes quickly removed Rozier off one of the deadly James switches he threw Rozier’s way throughout game four, but a series of quick passes found Rozier’s next assignment, Kyle Korver, on the opposite side of the court for a corner three.
Baynes will not stifle the fiery production James is beginning to induce on Boston’s defense with precision passing, he missed switches in game three, he’s not swift on his feet but his size removes a layer of dominance on the interior that the Cavaliers have exerted on Boston.
At this point, the Celtics aren’t winning the series by outshooting Cleveland. They’re going to grind out games on the defensive end the way they did in games one and two.
A Baynes lineup effectively jammed the lane on the defensive end late in the third quarter, allowing Smart to block a James drive inside after Larry Nance poured in a three-point put-back on the previous possession. After an early make by Rozier to start the third, that lineup pulled Boston within 10.
As Brown and Horford attacked the interior with Thompson off the floor through the middle portion of the fourth, Baynes effectively attached a defender to him on the perimeter. Boston pushed further, getting within six.
Baynes’ direct contributions to the scoreboard were small, but his presence helped grind down the pace of the game as Cleveland tried to soar away. This play wasn’t pretty, but important.
DYING at Al Horford pointing Aron Baynes to the hoop pic.twitter.com/kxXjFQleCE— Born Salty (@cjzero) May 22, 2018
Morris stood on the sideline, ready to enter the game for the final seven minutes but couldn’t with Baynes at the line. On the other end of the floor he broke around a Thompson screen and stuffed Korver’s shot into the stands, securing his biggest play of the game and his exit.
From that point on Cleveland outscored Boston 15-13 and sealed their win.
Per usual, Stevens remained coy on lineup changes at shootaround today, but it wouldn’t be stunning to hear Baynes’ name called over the PA speakers at TD Garden tonight before tip-off.