The Celtics had quite the conundrum on their hands. Faced with the surging Milwaukee Bucks, how could they consistently contain and limit Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Celtics coach Brad Stevens summed the dilemma up after the Celtics’ 123-116 Game 3 loss. “If [Aron Baynes is] not going to guard Giannis then he’s going to guard a 3-point shooter, and that’s difficult.”
Baynes is a physical and fearless interior defender, willing to put his body on the line for the sake of his team. Yet those strengths come at a cost. Due to his sheer size and limited lateral agility, the Aussie big man is a prime target to be drawn out to the three point line and forced to play perimeter defence.
First things first. Stopping, or at the very least, limiting Giannis was the key to Boston’s survival. The Greek Freak’s bread and butter is attacking the paint, and the Celtics did a terrific job extinguishing that part of his game in their Game 1 victory. This was achieved by keeping a big man on him at all times, denying him the opportunity to maul smaller players. However, in the grand scheme of things, Game 1 proved to be a blip on the radar.
Giannis is an unstoppable whirling dervish of angry sinew and muscle who nearly single-handedly destroyed the Celtics. Since Game 1 he averaged 20 points on 59% shooting, 11.5 rebounds and 6 assists. He was utterly unguardable in one-on-one situations, even when faced with traps, and he knew it. The Celtics’ options rapidly disappeared.
So, if Stevens did elect to roll the dice and give Baynes more minutes, could he have helped make life more difficult for the Bucks’ superstar? The short answer: sort of.
The Australian centre has a talent for drawing offensive fouls. His natural instinct for positioning himself in the right spot for charges could have helped put Giannis in foul trouble. While not a shot blocker (averages 0.4 these playoffs), he has the size and strength to somewhat stifle the ultra long and athletic MVP candidate drives and absorb the immense power he possesses. As long as Giannis was prevented from getting a running start, Baynes possesses just enough lateral quickness to be able to stay attached to him. He is also a valuable big body the Celtics utilised when collapsing their defences on Giannis in the interior in Game 1.
So, when used in the context of a team defence that is firing on all cylinders and communicating properly, Baynes could have been a useful tool against Giannis. However, it’s never that simple in the playoffs.
It was not just the Greek Freak that Baynes had to contend with while he was on the floor but the entire team, and this was the key factor that stifled his court time. The Bucks don’t have anyone in their current playoff rotations that Baynes is ideally suited to guard when he is switched off Giannis. In the modern era of basketball where switching and screening in pursuit of a mismatch is so prolific, this is a major problem for the Celtics when Baynes is on the court.
Baynes’ defensive game is predicated on playing opposite traditional style centres, the kind that likes to play in the low post with their back to the basket and wear down their opponent with their strength. Unfortunately for the former Piston, the Bucks don’t have any traditional big men.
Both the 7ft tall Brook Lopez and the 6ft 10in Nikola Mirotic do their damage from long-range. Respectively, 65% and 64% of their shots are from three-point territory. Milwaukee’s big men play the role of stretch bigs. Out on the perimeter Baynes is unable to harness his defensive strengths. This doesn’t even take into account the high likelihood that Baynes will have to step out and cover Milwaukee’s nimble guards as well as All-Star wing Khris Middleton. At that point, it just doesn’t make any sense to have the Australian on the court.
The Bucks lit up the Celtics with the long ball. In the five-game series, the Bucks hit 71 threes from a mind-blowing 207 attempts. The Celtics, on the other hand, made 55 threes from 179 attempts. Although the percentages for each team are practically identical (35% and 34% respectively) the volume of shots Milwaukee is jacking up was notably larger.
Whatever the strategy was that Stevens came up with in Game 5, it didn’t include a large role for Baynes, who played only 10 minutes.
The picture for Baynes in this series was never pretty. The matchup just didn’t suit his game. If Boston were able to pull the rabbit out the hat and progress to face either the Toronto Raptors or the Philadelphia 76ers then we were likely to see more of Baynes on the court.
“Disappointing unfulfillment is definitely what I’m feeling right now,” Baynes shared, after the series had ended. “I love Boston. I love the coaching staff that we have here. I love the players around here. We just didn’t play well on the court together.”
Baynes holds a player option for next season, and it remains to be seen if he will suit up in Celtics green once more, when the 2019/20 season kicks off.