Aron Baynes feigns ignorance after hard hit vs Pacers in Game 1

Aron Baynes feigns ignorance after hard hit vs Pacers in Game 1

BOSTON — Boston Celtics big man Aron Baynes could be seen grimacing and shouting in obvious discomfort after trying to absorb a charge early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers. Baynes, however, dismissed any concern about his health following Boston’s 84-74 triumph.

The 6-foot-9 Baynes got whistled for a shooting foul after shuffling into the path of Indiana’s Tyreke Evans. Baynes absorbed a shoulder to the chest -- and might have caught a bit of Evans’ knee below the belt — before hitting the ground hard while hoping for a charge call. Instead, the whistle went against him, much to the dismay of the Boston bench watching nearby.

Baynes protested then, after being helped up, doubled over in pain repeatedly while trying to shuffle off the court. Eventually, he squatted and kept protesting the call to officials before gingerly departing the court.

On the bench, Baynes scrunched his face and let out a scream as team trainer Art Horne checked on him. Baynes had left ankle and foot injuries this season that caused some concern when he seemed to be flexing that leg in the aftermath of the collision.

Baynes, rather humorously, downplayed concern after the game when asked by reporters if he had been hurting in the fourth quarter.

"I looked like I was in pain?” Baynes replied.

Um, yeah.

"Looks can be deceiving. For sure, I must have been breathing harder than normal,” said Baynes.

It was then noted to Baynes that he sure appeared to be screaming on the Boston bench. Even Kyrie Irving looked concern sitting next to him.

"I might have been a little bit emotional. That's all,” said Baynes. "One of those things. It's all good. At the end of the day, our emotion runs a little bit high. I'm fine and ready to get back out there.”

Baynes subbed back in with 5:01 remaining in the game and played for nearly three minutes before subbing out with the game in hand. He finished with 2 points and 9 rebounds over 23 minutes. 

The Celtics posted an impossibly low defensive rating of 68 with Baynes on the court, according to the NBA’s box score data. Alas, their offensive rating was an equally terrible 68, offsetting all the strong defensive play while Baynes was on the floor.

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Celtics to face Bucks in second round of the NBA playoffs

Celtics to face Bucks in second round of the NBA playoffs

To nobody's surprise, the Boston Celtics are going to play the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.

The Bucks, the East's No. 1 seed, had the best record in the NBA last season (60-22) and faced little resistance in their first-round matchup. They easily swept the Detroit Pistons in four games. The Pistons' star player, Blake Griffin, was far from healthy, and that played a role in the Bucks' series win.

This is the second year in a row that the Celtics will play the Bucks in the playoffs. Last year, the No. 2 seeded Celtics defeated the Bucks in a series that spanned seven games. The home team won every game in that series.

The Bucks will be a tough opponent for the Celtics. Potential league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare, and he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game during the regular season. And around him, the Bucks have solid depth.

In their regular season series, the Celtics posted only a 1-2 record against the Bucks, winning their first meeting in November but coming up just short in their other two games. Antetokounmpo averaged 31 points per game against the Celtics, so slowing him down will be key to finding success in the series.

The Celtics will open on the road in this series, as the first two games will be in Milwaukee. The Celtics will have to ensure that they get off to a solid start and continue to fare well on the road, something they struggled to do last postseason (1-7 record in eight road games, 0-3 in Milwaukee).

BLAKELY: Celtics vs. Bucks playoff history>>>

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Al Horford at the center of it all in the postseason

Al Horford at the center of it all in the postseason

This probably should have been old hat for Al Horford. After all, he’s got 11 seasons of playoff experience and totaled 115 postseason games, or more than double that of ring-winning teammate Kyrie Irving.

And, yet, as Horford lounged on the scorer’s table inside BankersLife Fieldhouse, conducting a postgame radio interview after Sunday’s Game 4 triumph that completed Boston’s first-round sweep of the Pacers, he seemed to be savoring the moment. 

Behind him, Horford's family, including his father, Tito, who has been glued to Horford’s side in the infancy of this playoff journey, reveled with a “Believe in Boston” banner waving nearby.

Inside the Celtics’ locker room, after his typical postgame ice bath, Horford admitted this four-game sweep was particularly satisfying. Maybe it was the roller coaster nature of Boston’s maddening regular season. Maybe it’s all the work that has gone into simply keeping Horford upright, particularly with the knee soreness that has lingered for much of the season. Maybe it was the bad memories of losing to the Pacers twice in the first round of the playoffs during Horford’s time with the Atlanta Hawks.

Or maybe, nearing his 33rd birthday, Horford has simply learned to savor this all a bit more.

Not that age is slowing him down much. Yes, Horford endured one of the worst shooting performances of his career on Sunday, missing 15 of the 19 shots he hoisted. And, yet, in typical Horford fashion, he was still one of Boston’s most impactful players.

That’s the way it was all series. Horford shot 34 percent against the Pacers in Round 1 but you can make the case that he was the series MVP. Heck, his late-game swat of Bojan Bogdanovic in Game 2 might have singlehandedly prevented a loss, kept the momentum on Boston’s side, and allowed the Celtics to trek to Indiana oozing a confidence that helped the team make such short work of the Pacers.

The advanced numbers confirm Horford’s Round 1 impact. The Celtics owned a team-best net rating of plus-15.9 in the 138 minutes that Horford was on the floor, pairing a robust 109.7 offensive rating with an absurd 93.8 defensive rating.

But it’s the off-court numbers that scream his importance. In the 54 minutes that Horford was on the bench, Boston owned a net rating of minus-16.6. The team's offensive rating plummeted to 77.3 in that span. No other player’s off-court rating was even close (next lowest: Gordon Hayward, minus-4.3).

In easier to digest numbers, the Celtics outscored the Pacers by a team-best 46 points with Horford on the court, and were outscored by a team-high 16 without him.

It’s not necessarily surprising that Horford’s play floated quietly below the radar. It always does. And while everyone from Irving to Jaylen Brown to Terry Rozier deserved the attention for their efforts in Round 1, it’s telling that Horford can have an uncharacteristically inefficient offensive series and still have the biggest impact.

Here’s what shouldn’t float under the radar: Horford might just be the most important player when the Celtics and Bucks clash in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It seems likely that the Celtics will lean heavy on small-ball lineups against the Bucks, this after featuring two-big lineups with Aron Baynes throughout the Pacers series. By going small, the Celtics can try to exploit situations when Brook Lopez is matched up with Horford, forcing him out towards the 3-point line if the Celtics fire away like they typically have against Milwaukee.

Horford played only 69 minutes over two games against the Bucks this season but his on/off splits looked an awful lot like his first-round playoff numbers. The Celtics were plus-16.8 with Horford on the court (110.1 offensive, 93.3 defensive), but owned a net rating of minus-19.9 in three games and 75 total minutes without him.

The Bucks’ offense gets a jolt with Lopez on the court, giving them a 3-point threat and helping space the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee’s offensive rating dipped 8 points to a team-worst 106.2 when Lopez wasn’t on the court this season. But the Celtics can force the issue a bit by knocking down perimeter shots.

Going small would also mean that Horford will be forced to match up often with Antetokounmpo, who deserves the MVP for his two-way efforts on a team that was the NBA’s best over the course of 82 regular-season games. While Boston’s success will be dictated in large part by the team’s ability to contain Milwaukee’s role players, it will still be important to make Antetokounmpo work for his points (and avoid the supernova efforts in which he can singlehandedly will his team to victory).

The Celtics could then bring Baynes off the bench to limit Horford’s grind and this might be a series where Semi Ojeleye can add another stout body to throw at Antetokounmpo, something Stevens has done often in the past.

According to the NBA’s tracking data, Horford defended Antetokounmpo on 41 possessions over two regular-season games this season. The Greek Freak was 7-of-14 shooting for 16 points but Horford did a solid job keeping him off the free-throw line. The numbers weren’t particularly glossy for any of Boston’s defenders against Giannis. Ojeleye got 40 turns, allowing 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting with three shooting fouls. It’s notable that Marcus Smart might have enjoyed the most success (7 points on 2-of-6 shooting on 21 possessions). Boston will lean on its stable of switchy forward, particularly Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Morris, and hope to take away the easy stuff for Antetokounmpo (which means tightening up their turnover woes from Round 1, too).

But the brunt of the load will fall on Horford. If his importance isn’t always obvious, it’ll be on the full display in this series. And the Celtics desperately need another dose of Playoff Al if they are to maintain their momentum from Round 1.

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