BOSTON – As the Celtics faithful poured out of the TD Garden following Boston’s 96-83 Game 5 win over Cleveland on Wednesday, there was plenty of praise for Jayson Tatum’s big scoring night.
Al Horford got some love for his double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds while two Marcuses – Smart and Morris – each delivered a baker’s dozen worth of points.
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Still, the difference-maker for Boston was Aron Baynes, who provided the kind of defensive presence - and some timely baskets early on - that proved to be exactly what the Celtics needed to take a 3-2 series lead and maybe just as important, position Boston a win away from a trip to the NBA Finals.
Baynes was back in the starting lineup in large part because the Cavaliers were no longer playing a small-ball unit to start games as they inserted Tristan Thompson in with the first group while Kyle Korver came off the bench.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens rolled with Morris ahead of Baynes for the first four games, but it was clear that the Celtics had to make a change to better compete with Cleveland’s size and muscle.
Stevens had remained coy on the change, which wasn’t revealed until Baynes’ name was announced as one of the starters.
And Baynes, similar to other Celtics this season when given a larger platform to perform, made a significant impact that went far beyond his six points and seven rebounds.
“We’ve got a lot of tough guys on our team, but I think they will all tell you Baynes is one of the toughest we’ve been around,” Stevens told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
Boston wound up winning the battle on the boards 45-39, which included limiting the Cavs to just three offensive rebounds. That would factor heavily in Boston having a decisive 15-5 advantage when it came to second-chance points.
“One of the things about our team, when someone’s number is called we step up and try to play within the system,” Baynes said. “It starts on the defensive end for us. We’re just trying to get back and be big. We haven’t been as long as we had been in the last few series up until this point. That was a focus for us, to look big, to pack the paint and make them have more of an outside effort.”
Although Horford was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive second team on Wednesday while Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown also getting some votes, Baynes’ presence has been the key to Boston finishing the regular season with a league-best defensive rating of 101.5.
And individually, Baynes’ 97.0 defensive rating was tops among all players in the NBA with at least 50 games played this season.
“Baynes is a really good defender,” Stevens said. “He helps in a ton of different ways. I thought he did a good job getting to the ball off the glass and getting tip-ins. The purpose for that change was we're going to have to play big some. We wanted to play big a little bit more. But it was more to get two wings off the bench so that we could then rotate our wings with basically quick breaks around the timeouts if we could, because we knew we were going to play those guys a lot of minutes tonight.”
Stevens is referring to Morris (37 minutes) and Smart (24 minutes), who each scored 13 points.
As important as their contributions were to the win, it was the reinsertion of Baynes into the starting lineup that proved to be the one move made by Boston that ultimately put them over the top in Game 5 and even more significant, has them on the cusp of a trip to the NBA Finals.
“Stay locked in. That’s what it’s about for us,” Baynes said. “We know what’s gotten us to this point and we need to keep doing that. It starts on the defensive end for us and playing within Brad’s system. And offensively, getting the right shots; not trying to do it by yourself, do it with five guys. That’s what it’s about this time of year.”
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