The undermanned Boston Celtics have had their place in the 2108 NBA playoffs essentially secured for weeks now. Despite winning 55 games (fourth highest across the NBA) and finishing as the Eastern conference's second seed, they would appear to be one of the more vulnerable squads in the 16 team field. Injuries have debilitated this Celtics roster since opening night, when star free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward fractured his left ankle in the first six minutes of their campaign.
Along with Hayward, they enter Game 1 without perennial all-star guard Kyrie Irving (knee), Marcus Smart (thumb), and Daniel Theis (knee). Under the guidance of Brad Stevens, one of sports' brightest and youngest coaching talents, the Celtics have defied all odds to claim home court advantage in the first round.
A key part of the Celtics' success this season, has been the ever-reliable Aussie big man, Aron Baynes. Baynes appeared in 81 games for the Celtics, starting 67 of those, logging a career high 18.3 minutes per contest. Though not a stat accumulator on the box score, the Celtics know what to expect from Baynes, who averaged 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds over the regular season. He anchors the league's best defense, and brings a physicality in the paint, along with willingness to put his body on the line for his team.
ESPN's Chris Forsberg noted Baynes' penchant for standing in the firing line earlier this season. The Boston centre was typically matter-of-fact about it. "My job is to try to make every shot attempt of the opponent's as tough as I can. If that's me putting my body on the line, then each time I'm going to step up and do it," Baynes said.
Who wouldn't want a guy like that on their squad heading into the playoffs?
For all the non-quantifiable intangibles he brings to the Celtics, he will enter the playoffs on a statistical high, after torching the Brooklyn Nets for 26 points and 14 rebounds in Boston's regular season finale. Posting career high marks in points (26), offensive rebounds (9), made field goals (12), and field goal attempts (23), he was able to take advantage of his expanded role on offense as the Celtics rested other key players. For an indication of how rare that stat line, his previous season high in shot attempts before Wednesday night was 14, coincidentally also against Brooklyn way back on January 6th.
Baynes and the Celtics now face a very talented - if not disappointing - Milwaukee Bucks squad that began the season hoping to battle for one of the top four seeds in the east, before floundering to 44 wins and the seventh spot. The mediocre season from Milwaukee, highlighted by the firing of head coach Jason Kidd mid-season, may have them feeling as though they 'lucked out' by drawing the Celtics in the first round.
The Bucks are actually an excellent matchup for Baynes. Milwaukee have struggled to contain opposition big men all season, and the Celtics' three-headed big man rotation of Baynes, Al Horford and former Buck Greg Monroe, will be ready to feast on the Bucks' porous interior defense. According to nba.com, the Bucks ranked 17th overall with a defensive rating of 107.1, but the picture is even bleaker in the paint. Milwaukee routinely gives up 47.3 points in the paint per game, which places them 23rd league wide in that category.
This is where Baynes comes into play. 339 of his 446 field goal attempts this season have come from within 14 feet of the basket, that's 76% of all his shot attempts this season. Whilst he has recently shown an ability to expand his range by knocking down three of his four career three-point makes since March 31st, don't be fooled - he will be doing the bulk of his work close to the basket.
According to basketball-reference.com, Baynes ranks in the top ten for defensive rebound percentage amongst centers to have played in at least 70 games this season. Baynes' strong rebounding ability is particularly relevant in this series, as Milwaukee rank dead last in the league for rebounds per game, only reeling in 39.8. Opposition teams have caused damage on the offensive glass, knowing full well the Bucks can be vulnerable in this area of the game. In giving up 10 offensive rebounds per contest, the Milwaukee front line of John Henson, Tyler Zeller and second-year Aussie centre Thon Maker will be a focus point for Brad Stevens' squad, and certainly an area they will look to exploit.
Defensively, the Celtics have have had moderate success in curtailing the impact of Giannis Antetokounmpo across the regular season series. In the two Celtic victories, they limited Giannis to 24-of-45 shooting from the field, often forcing him out of the paint and into mid-range jump shots. The formula to beating Milwaukee is simple: keep the Bucks out of the paint, make them shoot from the perimeter, and don't allow Antetokounmpo to dunk all over you. As the man patrolling the interior, Baynes' ability to organise his teammates on defense will be crucial to their chances of advancing past the first round.
Boston certainly have their collective backs up against the wall heading into the postseason, and many NBA journalists are expecting the Bucks to give them all they can handle in this seven game series.
Game 1 will be the 27th playoff game of Baynes career. He's an NBA champion (with San Antonio), and an experienced head in the postseason environment. But this series, his ability to effectively play his role on both ends looms as the most important of his career thus far.