Considering the way his season had gone, Aron Baynes probably should have been more concerned about the ankle injury that left him jamming one of his tree-trunk limbs inside an MRI machine again.
Initial examination after Baynes hobbled off the floor in Philadelphia in late March left team trainers fearful of a grade 2 ankle sprain, which seemed to put Baynes’ availability for the start of the playoffs in jeopardy. Now, after some imaging, team doctors delivered a more encouraging prognosis: no acute injury, no structural damage. Baynes could play again whenever he felt ready.
“Balls to the walls,” said Baynes, in his typical booming Australian-accented voice. “Let’s get going.”
Baynes is one of the toughest guys on the Celtics’ roster but he missed a career-high 31 games this season. There were minor maladies — a right hamstring strain and a left ankle sprain, both of which sidelined him for three games early in the year — and more major ones — like the fractured finger that forced him to miss 13 tilts or the foot bruise that cost him another 11.
Baynes isn’t good at watching games from afar. "I try and disassociate myself because otherwise I will be screaming and jumping around all pissed off,” he admitted.
Baynes would often accompany the team on road trips and sit on the bench because watching from afar was so maddening. But Baynes had missed such few games in his career that he needed to be reminded that the NBA prefers inactive players wear a sports coat on the sideline when inactive (he remedied by breaking out his finest pink T-shirt and gray blazer creating a very Miami Vice look).
When Baynes’ postseason availability was momentarily in jeopardy, you could sense the concern in coach Brad Stevens’ voice. After all, the Celtics were 16-14 to that point when Baynes didn’t play and there was an obvious difference in defensive intensity when he wasn’t on the court. Stevens had been pondering whether the team needed to lean heavier on a two-big lineup with Baynes as a starter in order to jump start a defense that had eroded for two months.
So Stevens, too, breathed a sigh of relief at the diagnosis. Baynes missed one measly game then elevated back to a starting role four days after the injury scare in Philadelphia. Baynes started all eight games he played the rest of the season and is slated to remain in that spot when the Celtics open a first-round series against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday at TD Garden.
Baynes went from sideline to defensive savior.
The play of Baynes, particularly alongside fellow big man Al Horford, has helped reinvigorate these Celtics. But why exactly has the team been so much better with Baynes on the court?
"He’s our defensive coordinator,” said Marcus Smart, maybe the team’s best hope to land a spot on the NBA’s All-Defense teams. "Everybody talks about me being the defensive guy but Baynes is right up there. I think he’s probably the one person that out-talks me on the defensive end. He’s loud, he’s a big guy. Not only that, he changes the game.
"Baynes is really great at going up vertically and changing shots for us. And he allows Al and all our smaller bigs to not put that pressure of banging against bigger guys. Baynes takes on that and he takes it with pride. He does a really good job with it, every night, in and out.”
Then, as if to hammer home his point, Smart offered a final declaration.
"Baynes is definitely as important as anybody else on this team,” said Smart.
It’s easy to look at Baynes’ stat line since arriving in Boston and shrug off his importance. Even while starting 67 games last season over 81 appearances, he played only 18.3 minutes per game, regularly starting each half and then playing sparingly from there as the Celtics often leaned on small-ball combinations.
But Baynes’ impact is undeniable, even in smaller doses. The Celtics owned a defensive rating of 101.4 in the 821 minutes that Baynes was on the court during the 2018-19 regular season, the best number on the team among those with at least 600 minutes of floor time. And Boston’s defensive rating spiked to 106.8 in the 3,135 minutes without him. For the season, Boston’s defensive rating of 107 ranked tied for the sixth in the NBA.
Over the final eight games of the season, Horford and Baynes shared the court for 87 minutes over six games and owned a solid defensive rating of 102.8 (and a net rating of plus-10.8). For the season, the duo played 163 minutes together over 37 games and owned a defensive rating of 92 in that span (and a net rating of plus-18.5).
Horford can’t gush enough about having Baynes alongside, in part because it reduces the jousting that Horford has to do with centers.
"I just think we’re out there trying to compete and trying to win,” Horford said when asked about the success of the two-big lineups. "Aron, I know that, defensively, if I make mistakes, he’ll cover my back out there.”
You can hear Baynes’ voice barking out directions from the back line any time he’s in the game. Even as he’s developed a 3-point shot in recent seasons, he understands that defense is the priority when he’s on the floor.
"If we lock in defensively and really commit ourselves, that’s when we’re able to look great,” said Baynes. "We try and get this thing going on the defensive end and I think that was our key last year. I think that’s our key this year. …
"For defense, communication is the biggest thing. Communication gets us through a lot of mistakes that we make. We’re able to cover up different things. As hard as it is to hear out there sometimes, when you talk, it’s just a lot better. It may add to the noise but if you get a couple key points across every possession then that really helps. It’s that second, third effort that we’re able to cover and when we make those second and third efforts, like when our defense is switching, and that’s when we’re good.”
Told that even the Garden can’t get loud enough to drown out his own voice, Baynes joked how it’s weird how he can pick out his teammates’ voices on the court.
"It’s one of those things, no matter how loud it is, I can pick out the guys on our team through that noise. You listen to them everyday, working with them in practice, so you can pick out their voice through the noise,” he said. "Sometimes, it’s a bit deafening in there and that’s when we love to be playing in the Garden, to be honest. That’s what we’re about, those moments. A lot of the time the Garden responds to defense and playing good defense so it goes hand in hand with also trying to overcome that noise sometimes.”
With Smart sidelined at the start of the playoffs, even more of the defensive responsibility falls on Baynes. He’s eager for the challenge. Despite all the injuries, he led the Celtics in charge takes with 18. Among all players that averaged at least 16 minutes per game, Baynes ranked 21st in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus metric. That was one spot behind frequent sparring partner Joel Embiid, and five spots ahead of Horford.
The Pacers like to play big, which should allow Stevens to lean heavy on his own two-big combinations. There might even be times when Baynes gets more late-half burn than he typically sees, including rare closing-time action.
Baynes’ role gets murkier if the Celtics advance in the playoffs as Boston might need to lean on small-ball lineups against a team like Milwaukee. As usual, Baynes will be ready to stabilize the defense, regardless of when he’s called upon. It’s why he re-signed almost instantly this offseason, yearning to complete the “unfinished business” this team had after falling in Game 7 of the East finals a year ago.
Baynes knows the season hasn’t gone to plan, both with his injuries and with the team’s inconsistent play. He’s thankful to be healthy heading to the playoffs and believes the last few weeks are a glimpse of what’s ahead for this team.
And he still has lofty expectations for this group.
"I’ve been through [injuries] a lot more this year than I did last year, so to be able to have the last few weeks and having everyone coming in and the team finally clicking, getting to where we need to be, it’s a positive time for us to start playing well,” said Baynes. "It hasn’t gone exactly according to plan up to this point but we still don’t have any less expectations than what we came into the at the start of the season.”
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