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Supersized front court duo paramount to playoff success

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Aron Baynes and Al Horford present challenges for Indiana, Boston’s likely first round opponent, and other Eastern Conference foes

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

One possession after dusting Myles Turner with a swift up-and-under move on the block, Aron Baynes forced a turnover simply by planting his 6’10, 254-pound body right in front of the basket. Baynes’s defensive positioning sent an unbalanced Wesley Matthews flying into the first row of cameramen.

Minutes later, Al Horford leaped to rebound a Baynes mid-range miss, and lofted a perfect entry pass to Kyrie Irving, who held position under the basket.

Horford and Baynes helped Boston jump out to a 9-1 lead in the opening three minutes of last Friday’s 114-112 win over the Pacers. In the win, Baynes and Horford combined for 20 of the team’s 43 rebounds. The frontcourt pairing presents issues for Indiana, the Celtics’ likely first round opponent, and may be the key to an extended playoff run through the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers, as Brad Stevens said, are one of the most physical teams in the league. Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young — who seems to always kill the Celtics — are all versatile big men who can punish teams in the paint on both ends of the court. Against Indiana, the Celtics don’t have a choice. They will need to counter Indiana’s big men with Horford and Baynes. On Friday, whenever Boston trotted out four perimeter players with one center, as it likes to do, the Pacers “didn’t waste time” seeking mismatches in the post, Stevens said.

“We tried to buy a few minutes there without double bigs,” Stevens said after last Friday’s win, “And it was hard.”

On defense, Baynes matches up with Young, and can usually sag off him to play help defense. Though Young (35.4% 3pt) is a decent outside shooter, he’s hesitant to launch from the outside, which allows Baynes to patrol the paint and do what he does best: contest shots at the rim. Horford, on the other hand, is tasked with navigating more pick-and-pops against Turner on the perimeter. Though Indiana plays a physical brand of basketball, they’re 25th in the league in offensive rebounding. These are ideal defensive assignments for the Celtics, and they can help exacerbate Boston’s advantage on the boards.

Offensively, playing with Horford and Baynes unlocks a lot of different looks. Of course, Horford has a much more refined offensive skillset, but they can both punish mismatches in the post and drag Indiana’s rim-protectors to the perimeter. After every shot goes up, they both crash the paint and win position for offensive rebounds. One of Baynes’s underlooked skills is his knack for sealing off shot-blockers in the paint. Horford also mitigates rim-protectors by drawing them to the perimeter on pick-and-pops.

In the halfcourt, Horford and Baynes are both excellent at setting screens. In the clip below, Horford runs a hand-off with Baynes before they both set picks to spring Jayson Tatum open for a (facepalm) mid-range jumper. Against some of Indiana’s below average perimeter defenders, these screens can be lethal.

“Big Al” can do it all. He can lead a fast break, run pick and rolls as a screener or ballhandler, make pass out of double teams or feast in the post. As Michael Pina wrote, “Horford is a rising tide; everybody else on the Celtics is a boat.” Playing with Baynes helps Horford elevate the rest of the team, especially against the Pacers.

The Baynes/Horford duo isn’t only designed to take down Indiana, though. Overall this season, the Horford and Baynes duo has outscored opponents by 29.6 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference. Against teams like the 76ers, the Celtics will also need the two big men to play at a high level to create mismatches, contain opposing Goliaths and control the boards.

That 29.6 number is certainly magnified by the small sample size. For most of the season, either Horford or Baynes has been sidelined by injuries, so it’s been hard to pair them together, Stevens said after Friday’s game. Plus, playing Baynes and Horford together means fewer playing time for Boston’s wings, Stevens added.

It’s a calculation Stevens needs to make, and deciding which two wings to complement Irving, Baynes and Horford is crucial — there needs to be a balance between outside shooting, defense and playmakers. Oftentimes, the right wings will be whoever has the hot hand, but Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum have been the most consistently effective in the Celtics’ super-sized lineup. With Irving, Tatum, Smart, Baynes and Horford, Boston has outscored opponents by 41.5 points per 100 possessions, by far the best mark on the team.

The league has evolved more to high-flying, dynamic and versatile players and has sized down to the point where people question the role of a traditional center. The Celtics’ ability to play small or with Baynes and Horford in bigger lineups gives them a huge advantage over teams with more limited rosters. On a Celtics team ripe with talent up and down the roster, it’s hard to believe their playoff success rides on sizing up with two 32-year olds.

For the past six games, Baynes has started alongside Horford. Tonight, Baynes and Horford will again test Indiana, this time with home-court advantage on the line.