Two of the preeminent small ball pioneers of the NBA will go big for significant stretches of their marquee match up tonight.
The return of DeMarcus Cousins and Aron Baynes for the Warriors and Celtics respectively adds new layers to two teams that traditionally run forwards in Draymond Green and Al Horford at the five. Boston has played Baynes 18 minutes per game in their last five since he returned from a broken hand. Golden State has featured 20 minutes of Cousins over their last three contests after he missed almost a year with an Achilles tear. It signals a balance the two may strike stylistically in Boston at 8:30 EST.
The utilization of the two centers differs for a Warriors team that runs tighter lineups than Brad Stevens’ depth-laden approach. It also goes without saying that these two do different things on the court, but their similar sizes may render them chasing each other on and off the court.
Since returning, Baynes has played primarily with Boston’s bench lineup. 17 of his minutes were alongside Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, with Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown staggered in (+37.8 net rating). His other significant run came with Rozier, Smart, Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum against the Cavaliers for 13 minutes, which featured a 98 offensive rating, but still a +17.3 net rating.
Over the Celtics’ 5-0 stretch, Stevens ran Baynes with the starters in place of Morris for an eight-minute burst in which they posted a 75% rebounding percentage and a +79.2 net rating. While Baynes was a -22 +/- in the win over the Heat, the Celtics out-scored their opponents by an average 12.7 points when he was on the floor in the other four games.
For the Warriors, Steve Kerr inserted Cousins as a fifth All-Star in possibly the greatest starting lineup ever with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. That group has played 32 minutes over Golden States’ last three, and unloaded a +49.7 net rating on the Clippers, Lakers and Wizards.
Golden State’s unprecedented offensive possibilities are a given with that group. They can run Cousins pick-and-rolls with any of their other four players, he shot 4-for-7 from three in his return and the starters posted a 89% assist percentage to pair with a 5.83 assist-turnover ratio. That group’s going to force Boston to get experimental in guarding to say the least, likely including Baynes.
When Cousins plays with the second unit, which he’s done alongside Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala while Thompson and Green rotate in, the Celtics will get their best shot at countering.
That group ran six less possessions per 100 than the starters, signaling the slowed approach that Cousins brings to a team that typically runs-and-guns. At 105.2, Stevens’ primary bench unit lately out-paces Golden States by nearly five possessions per 100, while the three other Baynes lineups sit around the 100 mark.
It’s a small sample size and those numbers are all in the context of their opponents, but Warriors-Celtics will be a game of dictating pace. Golden State plays at 101.87 possessions per 100 versus the C’s 100.08. How the two teams deploy bigs will shift that within the flow of the game.
Cousins provides Golden State with an unprecedented opportunity to win every match up on the court in every game. But he can also slow them slightly from their desired pace, giving defensively-oriented opponents like Boston a chance to pull the game back toward their style for a moment.
But when both small ball units hit the floor all bets are off on the speed bumps.