Aron Baynes and the Boston Celtics continue to hold the upper hand over the Philadelphia 76ers. These two marquee franchises opened the NBA season on Tuesday night in Boston, where the Celtics left 105-87 victors.
Ben Simmons led the Sixers and showed glimpses of the improvements in his game that have been discussed all offseason. In the end however, it was Baynes who stole the show yet again at the TD Garden. Here are some observations from opening night in Boston.
Baynes’ second half
Predictably, Baynes started the game on the bench, with the Celtics deploying their army of wing players around Al Horford at the five. And in the first half, the big Australian, while reliable as ever, was fairly circumspect during his 8 minutes of action. That changed after the intermission.
Baynes was inserted into the starting unit for the second half, as Boston responded to Philadelphia replacing Markelle Fultz with J.J. Redick. The change brought about another wonderful performance from Baynes, as he harkened back to May’s postseason series.
Simply put, Baynes was spectacular in the second half. He was the most effective big man on the court after the break, and that is no hyperbole or overstatement of his impact in a game featuring Joel Embiid and Horford. On both ends, he infused a trademark tenacity and grit with a level of nuance that has come to define his game since joining the Celtics.
Baynes’ minutes largely mirrored those of Embiid. Defensively, Embiid was his sole focus, and just like last postseason, Baynes was a professional irritant who disrupted the Sixers’ All-Star. Embiid led the game in scoring with 23 points but he was ineffective yet again against the Celtics.
“When we lock in at the defensive end, we can be a disruptive team,” Baynes said post game. “We had some lapses there, where we weren’t playing great defence. We were giving them too many looks in transition.
“When we were able to take away their transition points we made it tough on them. That’s what we need to focus on as a team. That how we were successful last season, and that’s our ticket again this year”
Offensively, Baynes continued to haunt the Sixers from behind the three-point line, as he converted two more long-range shots.
Simmons’ first half
As was often the case last season, Simmons’ final stat line was robust in every category. He finished with 19 points (7 of 14 shooting), 15 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks in a game high 43 minutes of action.
Simmons was the best player on the court during the first half. Pleasantly, much of his early success came in addressing two improvement areas that have risen into the discussion following his rookie season.
The biggest thing that jumped out was Simmons’ defensive aptitude and attention to detail. This is an area Brett Brown has constantly discussed in relation to Simmons elevating himself into the upper echelon of NBA players, and there were signs of growth on the first night of year two. The Celtics first defensive possession saw Simmons start on Horford, before rotating away from the basketball and ultimately stonewalling Gordon Hayward to close out the possession. These may sound like mundane developments, but the constant ability to play switch defence, with a constant attention to detail, can elevate Simmons' game all by itself.
On the attacking side, Simmons attempting to post up is something to watch out for as the season takes shape. Pre-game, he spent significant time working on drives out of the high post, and this is something that infiltrated tonight’s game. The first quarter was littered with Simmons actively fighting for deep post position.
These ultimately led nowhere as the Sixers struggled with making entry passes – a matter that was a constant issue last season, and something that Brown acknowledged post game as an issue. Yet with Markelle Fultz in line for more minutes, Simmons will likely need to deploy more traditional big man skills to make the Sixers offence tick. The reigning Rookie of the Year further sought advantageous matchups from the elbow, and this led to the game’s biggest highlight.
Simmons finished with 11 free throw attempts and an increased sense of aggression will serve him well if maintained.
Brown thought Simmons did some good things, although the Sixers head coach acknowledged that Simmons’ performance was indicative of the team as a whole.
“I thought Ben showed signs of incredible athleticism and confidence to shoot some jump shots. At times, he was a part of the rest of us, where we were searching. We were forcing a lot.
“We moved the ball. We got good looks. We didn’t make them, but we really got good looks. That 18 assist number is the second lowest number that we had all of last season.
“Some of it you credit the Celtics. Some of it is that we need to get better at trusting what we’ve been doing and been good at. I thought he was like everyone else, up and down.”
Opening night blues
Make no mistake, this was the first game of “real” basketball for the season. Everyone in the TD Garden could feel the rust being whittled away from both sets of players. Simmons knew it better than anyone.
“You knew it was the first game,” Simmons said postgame. “After the first two minutes, nobody was making a shot.”
Simmons elaborated that the Sixers must get back into the gym and work on “everything” as they look to get their season going. The mood in the Sixers locker-room was largely calm following defeat on opening night, although as Simmons noted, there is a need for wide-spread improvement before the Sixers take the court again.
“I think a lot of it is communication,” Simmons added. “We need to talk a lot more. That’s the biggest thing.”
To that end, turnovers have plagued the Sixers under Brown’s coaching and they reared their ugly head again tonight. 16 giveaways – 11 of which came during a moribund first half – were systematic of a team working to re-establish their rhythm. To his credit, Simmons only committed three turnovers and this wasn’t the biggest issue for him personally.
How Brown deploys his ball handlers will be something to watch going forward. There were minutes where Simmons shared the court with both Fultz and T.J. McConnell, and it was very common to see at least two of this trifecta combining in units devoid of multiple outside threats. The shooting talents of each remain questionable, and how Brown manages his rotation will be a larger talking point in defeat.
Additional thoughts and observations from the TD Garden.
Jonah Bolden made his NBA debut in the final minute of his first active game as an NBA player. As we touched on during the preseason, minutes will be hard for Bolden to come by early on in his NBA career. In the pre game, Bolden warmed up like some who knew there would be limited - if any - minutes, too. The 2017 second round draft pick got in a robust workout and there was a particular emphasis on his outside jump shot.
Simmons’ defensive rebounding was sublime tonight. This almost goes without saying, given he collected 12 defensive rebounds, but Simmons frequently flew for tough, contested rebounds to close out defensive stops for his team.
Here is Baynes on playing against Simmons. “It’s always fun playing against one of your mates out there. He’s a great player and he’s showing how talented he is.”
The first half of basketball was a grind, and that’s putting it nicely. The Sixers posted an offensive rating of 76.6 through the first 24 minutes, while the Celtics weren’t much better at 85.8. Both teams combined to shoot 7/24 during the game’s opening stretch and things barely improved before intermission.
I’ve been around the Sixers for less than a week and Brown profusely praising the leadership of Simmons is becoming a ritualistic experience. Here is Brown’s commentary pre-game, which echoed what he told me on Saturday.
Philadelphia now heads home, with a day off to recover before they host the Chicago Bulls in their home opener on Thursday night.
Boston has two days off before facing the Raptors in Toronto. There is no soft entrance into the season for the Celtics. Back-to-back matchups, with the two teams widely considered to threaten their Eastern Conference favouritism, offer a litmus test out of the opening gates. The Celtics held home court tonight, and have a tremendous opportunity to further establish their footing atop the NBA when they head to Canada.
“Toronto played us tough last season,” Baynes said post game. “We didn’t play well against them last season. But we need to have an internal focus. That’s our key this year. We need to see what we need to do as a team to improve each game, and focus on that first and foremost."
And we are off! The 2018-19 NBA season is underway!
The Pick and Roll will be in Philadelphia on Thursday night, and in Milwaukee on Friday night as Matthew Dellavedova, Thon Maker and the Milwaukee Bucks play the first ever regular season NBA game in Fiserv Forum. Stay tuned for more live coverage.