Aron Baynes has forged a certain reputation over his NBA career. He is the ‘Big Banger.’ He is a lumbering five man who cut his teeth as an elite interior presence, in an era when basketball has been swept up in a pace and space revolution.
Baynes has done nothing but reinforce the stereotype all season, especially during the Boston Celtics’ playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers. He has been the physical grinder that Boston expected when they signed him during the offseason, but he has also shown more than that. Baynes has evidenced a level of versatility that surpasses anything he has done in the NBA so far. This is the fundamental reason why he is playing the best basketball of his career, as the Celtics sit just one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
When the playoffs began, Baynes had a career resume consisting of 376 regular season games and 5,634 minutes of basketball. Across his six-year journey in the NBA, he had accumulated just four made three-point field goals. He has matched that total in three postseason games against Philadelphia.
While that little factoid is somewhat interesting, it's not unusual - other NBA big men have similarly adopted three-point shooting as their careers progressed.
What's astonishing, is the fact Boston are running actions with the intent of getting Baynes to launch shots from the perimeter. This isn’t a case of Baynes lucking into some loose change at the end of the shot clock. It’s a deliberate ploy from Brad Stevens and the Celtics coaching staff to let the Australian big man show his improved range off.
Baynes is 4 of 8 on threes against the Sixers, equating to just under three attempts per game. All four of his makes have come from the corners. The volume isn’t significant by modern NBA standards, but it is a huge development for Baynes and the Celtics.
Joel Embiid is a terror inside, and Baynes' shooting is a means of drawing him away from the paint. This strategy obviously only works, when the big man is capable of knocking down enough shots to draw the attention of interior mavens like Embiid. In this series so far, Baynes is doing just that.
This isn’t page one of Stevens’ coaching manual. Heck, at the start of the season, the thought of Baynes being used as a floor spacer probably wasn’t even in the manual, or minds, of the collective Boston coaching staff. Given the state of the Celtics' current depth chart, and the challenge their talented opponents present, you would think modesty wasn't an option - everything had to be on the table.
Boston has only posted an offensive rating of 97.3 with Baynes on the floor against Philadelphia. This isn’t a good number. In fact, it is very bad. But greater context is required before passing judgment. Baynes’ primary focus is Embiid and he is meeting the agenda here. He is also faced with negating the Sixers starters to begin each half, and when both teams go to the bench, Baynes is championing units without Al Horford and Boston’s other offensive leaders. Fits and spurts of offence, like the occasional three, or timely offensive rebound, have been enough for Boston to tread water in those periods.
2. Offensive rebounding
With Baynes on the floor this postseason, the Celtics are rebounding 29.1% of their missed shots, per Second Spectrum data. That offensive rebounding percentage is 60% higher than when Baynes sits, and would lead all playoff teams. In yet another example of how Stevens is getting his patchwork roster to gaudy heights, the Celtics have encouraged their tenacious centre to hit the offensive glass.
The tradeoff for playing Baynes has --historically anyway-- been a lack of spacing around a plodding five man. This is slowly changing as defences adjust to the big Australian's outside shooting, but right now, dominating from the inside remains his bread and butter.
Plays like this have characterised the Sixers series. Baynes storms in and collects the offensive rebound, while four Sixers stand idle. This is one of those hustle plays that cliché artists adore, but in this series, one where Boston is winning on the back of being the toughest kid in the playground, it is systematic of a player and franchise that won’t yield.
Throughout the series, Baynes’ focus has been Joel Embiid. He has been Boston’s primary guardian on the Cameroonian big man, recording 118 possessions in direct opposition. Horford has taken the responsibility on 65 possessions, while no other Celtics has more than nine.
Horford rightfully garnished headlines after stonewalling Embiid to close Game 3 out, but Baynes has been the anchor of Boston’s coverage all series. He has been their bellwether. That’s not to say Baynes has been able to completely stop Embiid. No one in the NBA can stake claim to that. Baynes has his moments and has been beaten, too, but therein lies the real lesson from his performances this past week.
This is best exemplified during a short burst at the beginning of the second half in Game 3. On one possession, Embiid isolates on Baynes and is simply too nifty for his opponent.
Next time down the floor, Embiid tries his luck again, but this time Baynes was the victor.
On both possessions, Baynes is doing everything he can to deter Embiid. His stance is near-perfect, with a low base and arms extended. He slides his feet well and pushes back on his opponent as much as possible. On both occasions, Embiid is kept away from the restricted circle. He is able to find a silky finger roll at first, and was forced to into a reckless turnaround jumper on his next attempt. The pair split their brief mano-a-mano duel. The game quickly moved on and these two plays were buried beneath a maddening second half of basketball. While history won’t remember this as a key stretch in the series, there is a telling trend that emanates from this brief battle between starting centres.
Rewatch both clips, and you'll see the characteristics of the Sixers' offence during these plays. Embiid is taking his man into the post, while four teammates stand paralysed. There is no movement, no off-ball cutting or fluidity of any sort. In isolation, Embiid is working on an opponent he believes cannot guard him. But basketball is bigger than one matchup.
In Game 3, the least productive aspect of the Sixers offence was Embiid posting up. On the 15 such occasions that resulted in Embiid either shooting, fouling, turning the ball over or passing to a player who attempted a shot within one dribble of receiving the ball, the Sixers scored a total of eight points, per ESPN and Second Spectrum research.
In many ways, Embiid taking Baynes into the post is a massive win for the Celtics. Above all else, it slows the game down. It eliminates possessions, as evidenced by the 92-possession pace of Game 3 - a result that strikes a blow to the very heart of Philadelphia’s fluid offence that had won 20 of 21 entering this series. Boston just needs Baynes to be good enough on Embiid. To batter him. To use six fouls and an imposing stature as a physical deterrent. To that end, Baynes is going above and beyond.
Baynes has been omnipresent. Him plugging away on Embiid allows Horford to conserve energy by not taking the assignment any longer than needed. Embiid’s statistical output looks impressive on paper. While much of this has come at the expense of Baynes – it’s hard to ignore these Kodak moments – there is something bigger at play than the ego boost of a jaw-dropping dunk. Embiid is racking up highlight moments; the Celtics are collecting wins. Baynes’ defensive reliability has been a huge reason why.
One final note on Baynes’ defence: he has also sprinkled in some lovely shifts on the perimeter against Sixers guards. These have been fleeting, as he has been oft glued to Embiid, but when called upon, the Big Banger has looked surprisingly comfortable. This is something to watch, as a likely conference final series against Cleveland lies in wait.
Horford remains Boston’s best big man. Embiid has an unfair talent advantage over Baynes. But relative to their assigned roles, Baynes is performing at a level unmatched by anyone. Should the Celtics take Game 4 and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, it's no exaggeration to say they would not have achieved success without the solid, unassuming efforts of their Australian centre.
Aron Baynes' Boston Celtics play Game 4 against Ben Simmons' Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, 8 May 2018 at 0800hrs AEST.