Celtics Analysis: Horford-Baynes lineups intriguing, but not without risk

Celtics Analysis: Horford-Baynes lineups intriguing, but not without risk

BOSTON — His team’s defense in a maddening two-month erosion, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens made the (maybe slightly overdue) decision to alter his starting lineup Tuesday night with Aron Baynes paired up front with Al Horford during a gritty Kyrie Irving-less win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The two-big lineup made things tough for Cleveland’s sizable frontline and helped Boston produce one of its better recent defensive efforts. Horford took every opportunity to gush about Baynes’ impact in the aftermath.

"I just think that anything with Baynes works,” Horford said after Boston’s offday workout on Wednesday. “[Baynes] does so much for us, defensively. Protects the rim, just a very smart defender, and … whether it’s me, [Marcus] Morris, Guerschon [Yabusele], whatever, and I just feel like he makes our defense better.”

It’s hard to argue with the numbers. 

The Celtics now own a defensive rating of 83.9 in the 95 minutes of floor time that Horford and Baynes have been paired this season. That’s not just a stellar number on its own for a team that ranks fifth in the NBA allowing 107 points per 100 possessions, it’s also the best defensive rating among the 79 two-man units that have played at least 50 minutes for Boston this season.


And it isn’t an anomaly. The Celtics paired Horford and Baynes together in the team’s most common starting lineup last year and got elite-level defensive play. Boston owned a defensive rating of 93.9 in the 863 minutes the duo was paired, and the Horford/Baynes combo had a sizzling net rating of plus-11.8 overall.

So why in the world are the Celtics not rushing to reunite this pairing and make it the starting frontcourt moving forward? 

There’s a few issues at play, not the least of which is that moving Baynes into a starting role leaves Boston’s reserve groups dangerously thin on bigs with both size and experience. The bigger concern: the NBA’s small-ball trend that makes it hard to see how the Celtics can survive leaning hard on two-big lineups.

“Obviously, the challenge of the league is guarding a lot of the spread teams,” said Stevens. "Night in and night out, it is a different challenge, so there are some lineups and some teams that you might play that against more, and some lineups that are really hard to play that against. But, generally, I think [Horford and Baynes] bring a real defensive DNA, and I think they're very committed to doing whatever it takes to make it really hard to score on them. 

"With their size and length, I think we have a different impact at the rim. But when you're playing a team that's super small and spread out, that's tough to guard when you have a more traditional lineup.”


To hammer home that point, just look at the numbers from Boston's 19-game playoff run last year. The Celtics' defensive rating with the Horford/Baynes combo spiked to 103.7 — still a decent number, though defensive ratings tend to dip in the playoffs — but Boston was a minus-1.7 overall as their Kyrie-less offense struggled to generate consistent points. The Horford/Baynes combo struggled and the Celtics more often needed offense on the court. 

Even after Tuesday’s strong showing, Celtics players didn’t hide from the fact that two-big lineups can only be utilized now in certain situations.

"There’s going to be times [to utilize two bigs]. I don’t think we can play with those two on the floor at the same time just for matchup reasons because not every team plays a traditional two-big lineup,” said Secretary of Defense Marcus Smart. "But when we do, nine times in 10, it’s in our favor and it allows Al to step out on the perimeter and feel more comfortable and not have to bang and put that much pressure on his body on the defensive end. Baynes takes up that load and they complement each other.”

Here’s maybe the bigger concern with starting Baynes: Suddenly reserve groups have to lean hard on the likes of Daniel Theis (or Guerschon Yabusele or Robert Williams) for big minutes. Theis can hold his own against floor-stretching bigs but struggles against size. He logged only nine minutes in that Cleveland game and had a defensive rating of 152.4 in that span.


So what is Stevens to do?

His best bet will be to explore some of his more versatile lineups moving forward and hunt opportunities, based on matchups, to get some stretches with Horford and Baynes together.

The Celtics can leave Marcus Smart in the starting lineup and shuffle, say, Gordon Hayward back to the starting group. Or Stevens can dial it back to opening night and trot out the Newport 5/Erotic City combination of Irving-Hayward-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Horford. Either of those groupings allows Morris and Baynes to provide size off the bench without having to lean heavy on the less experienced bigs.

Recent playoff runs have proven that it’s best to have some fluidity in the lineup. Matchups will dictate how personnel is dispersed with Stevens able to make adjustments on the fly should they encounter unexpected struggles.

Versatility and depth were always supposed to be the hallmarks of this Celtics team. While it’s understandable that players prefer to know their roles during the regular season, the best teams are the ones that can lean on 10 players and best line up their personnel based on what can exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.

Stevens opened his test kitchen over the final eight games, starting with the Baynes/Horford experiment. He can shuffle his cards again knowing that, presented with two-big opportunities, they’ve got a potential trump card. Now, the key is figuring out how to best deploy the myriad of small-ball lineups that Stevens can call for this postseason.

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Celtics Exit Interviews: How did it all change with Kyrie Irving?

Celtics Exit Interviews: How did it all change with Kyrie Irving?

What’s going to happen with Kyrie?

I’ve heard the question probably a thousand times since the Boston Celtics’ season ended with a whimper earlier this month in Milwaukee. I’ve heard it from family, friends, mailmen, random Celtics fans at the airport, and baristas at Starbucks. I’ve heard it from people around the NBA and I’ve heard it from people that couldn’t name another player on the Celtics roster.

The answer, if we’re being honest, is that your guess is as good as mine. We spent the season adamant that, at the end of the year, Irving would survey his options and realize he has a pretty good situation in Boston. But, certainly, the way it ended — Kyrie in full “let it fly” mode as the Celtics got steamrolled four straight games by the Bucks, then not exactly owning his playoff struggles — wasn’t a particularly inspiring look. So usually I’ll volley the question.

Do you want Irving back?

Most of the time there’s a hesitation, a sign of the internal debate that a lot of Celtics fans seem to be having having while weighing the All-NBA talent against Irving’s leadership flaws. Maybe it’s simply a very vocal minority but we’ve been surprised by the amount of fans that have suggested that maybe it would be best for both sides to move on.

We’ve already told you why you should be careful what you wish for. From the standpoint of Boston remaining a legitimate title contender, it’s almost certainly best that Irving is back. Maybe it’s just an overly emotional aftermath to a maddening season, one in which Irving might be catching too much of the flak for Boston’s overall struggles. But a lot of fans remain conflicted.

All of which made us think: How exactly did we get here? Fans were downright giddy about the possibility of a long-term future for Irving here and he put up the best statistical season of his NBA career. But Boston’s struggles left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

We begin our postseason Exit Interviews series with a spotlight on Irving.

"If you’ll have me back, I plan on re-signing here"

When Irving stood before fans at the team’s season-ticket holder event before the season and verbally declared his intent to return, it took almost everyone by surprise. And, even if all parties involved were quick to stress that nothing could be truly agreed upon until the summer, Celtics fans were elated — and eager to rub the news in the faces of Knicks fans. 

Over the past seven months, however, things got weird. The Celtics struggled out of the gates and Irving compounded matters with missteps in his quest to be the team’s vocal leader. Even when he was well-intentioned — like publicly declaring how he called LeBron James for advice — the effect was sometimes more bad than good. When the Celtics’ struggles continued, and Irving’s future was deemed more uncertain than his preseason declaration might have suggested, Irving brooded and it further impacted the team negatively.

If you’re looking for a point where the tide of public opinion swung, it’s probably Feb. 1. Irving’s future had been dragged into the public spotlight in the aftermath of Anthony Davis requesting a trade. While it became rather obvious that Irving was merely a pawn in the quest of some to get Davis to Los Angeles (by planting seeds of doubt about whether Boston might still be player in the Davis sweepstakes this summer), Irving didn’t help matters with his angry reaction to the rumors.

“Somebody else is asking for a trade and I’m throw into that,” Irving fumed at a shootaround before Boston’s visit to the Knicks that day. “Uncertainty comes back on me.”

But Irving didn’t flat out deny the suggestion that he might be having second thoughts. He said simply that, “Boston’s still at the head of that race,” but that suggested, for the first time since before his October declaration, that it was still a race.

Two soundbites in particular went into heavy rotation: “Ask me July 1,” and “I don’t owe anybody s---.”

Maybe if the Celtics were sitting atop the East at that point, then all the noise would have gone away. But Boston could never quite get things right. When Irving and Kevin Durant were taped talking outside the locker room at the All-Star Game in Charlotte — the same All-Star Fame that Irving played in despite missing two games before the break with a knee sprain — the speculation only snowballed about whether the two would join forces in New York.

By the end of February, Irving began suggesting that his focus was on the playoffs. Asked why the postseason would be different than the regular season, Irving brashly suggested because he was here.

Then he endured one of the worst shooting slumps of his career and the Celtics got unceremoniously bounced from the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games. When he dismissively stated, “Who cares?” when asked about his shooting woes after Game 4, it drew the ire of already frustrated Celtics fans who screamed at their TV that they, most certainly, cared.

There is little debate about Irving’s talents. He averaged 23.8 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 40.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc this season. The Celtics owned an offensive rating of 112.8 when Irving was on the court, and it plummeted by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench.

Irving remains one of the most spellbinding ball-handlers and finishers in the NBA. His room-for-growth checklist would focus more on leadership and accountability than anything on the court (though his defensive intensity and focus could improve, as highlighted in the Milwaukee series).

Ultimately, the question is whether Irving desires to be back. Does he yearn to make amends for his own missteps? Does he want another crack at getting this thing right (albeit, with a cast that could be very different)? 

If Irving does elect to return and the Celtics continue to build around him, how can he win back the fan base? He could show the self-awareness that often evaded him last season. He can own his failures and express a desire for redemption. He can stress again his appreciation for the franchise and the opportunity to wear Celtics green. The city will embrace him; Boston loves nothing better than a redemption story.

You know what else would help? Winning. Winning cures all. irving and the Celtics didn’t do enough of it this year to mask their issues.

And it’s ultimately the reason why the offseason begins with so much uncertainty about Irving and his future. It’s in Irving’s best financial interest to return, with Boston able to offer him a five-year, $190 million maximum salary extension, or about $50 million more than any other suitor.

What’s going to happen with Kyrie? Nothing would surprise us. But it’s hard to imagine just how much has changed in seven months.

It feels a lot like "Game of Thrones": It’s a tantalizing journey that deserves a better ending than what we’ve got at the moment.

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NBA Rumors: Celtics to host two defensive studs for pre-draft workouts

NBA Rumors: Celtics to host two defensive studs for pre-draft workouts

If Brandon Clarke is on the board at pick No. 14 or later in the 2019 NBA Draft, it sounds like the Boston Celtics might be interested.

The Celtics are one of four teams set to host the Gonzaga product for a pre-draft workout, the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell reported Sunday.

Boston also will bring in Penn State guard Josh Reaves for a workout, Bryan Kalbrosky of USA TODAY's Celtics Wire reported Sunday.

Clarke was a highly productive two-way forward for the Zags last season, averaging 16.9 points per game while leading the NCAA's Division I in blocks (117 in 37 games) to win West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

He's projected as a first-round pick and has been tied to the Celtics -- who own the 14th, 20th and 22nd picks -- in several mock drafts, including the latest from NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely.

Reaves also is a defensive standout who won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors this past season after averaging 2.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game for the Nittany Lions. The 21-year-old is expected to go in the second round, where Boston has No. 51 pick.

Defense clearly is a priority for head coach Brad Stevens' club, which has drafted athletic stoppers like Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye and Jaylen Brown in recent years. With three selections in the first round, Boston has the capital to target another defensive-minded player with one those picks.

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