CLEVELAND – The Boston Celtics returned to their double-big starting lineup Tuesday night in Cleveland, pairing center Aron Baynes and power forward Al Horford together for the first time since Nov. 23, 2018. In doing so, Boston was able to clog the lane out of the gate against a large, physical Cavaliers team, setting the tone defensively for a 116-106 win at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Celtics started the Baynes-Horford tandem throughout the majority of last season, while also having the option to start small, with Horford at the 5 and Marcus Morris at the 4, against long, athletic teams.
Prior to Tuesday night, however, Boston’s frontcourt versatility had been limited. Baynes and Horford had started together only three times over the course of the season, mostly due to the fact that both of them had dealt with various injuries dating back to around Thanksgiving.
With the two of them now healthy, the C’s once again have the option to go big whenever they please.
“I think it’s one of the strengths of our group,” said Horford, who returned after missing two games due to left knee soreness and logged 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists. “I think it plays to our advantage – sometimes that’s good, other times it’s good to go smaller. Coach felt like it was important that we went big tonight.”
Why it was important against this particular team was because Cleveland features one of the NBA's most lethal frontcourt combinations in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Between the pair, they are averaging 29.0 points and 22.1 rebounds per game. However, against the C’s Tuesday night, they were limited to a total of 17 points and 14 rebounds, while combining to shoot just 5-of-17 from the field.
Baynes and Horford made it particularly tough on Love, who was held scoreless during the first half while shooting 0-for-8 from the field.
“I thought both Baynes and Al Horford – they play him tough and they do a lot of switching,” Cavs coach Larry Drew said of the difficulties his leading scorer faced. “I think the switching did kind of disrupt Kevin’s rhythm a little bit, because they have not only the size of the switch, but also their perimeters are pretty strong and lengthy.”
The unsung hero in the lineup change was Marcus Morris, who returned to the second unit for the first time since Nov. 21. Not all players would take kindly if asked to transition from a starting role to a bench role, but the veteran swingman did so without complaint. On top of that, he contributed 14 points, including some clutch scoring just before the start of the fourth quarter.
“I told our guys today, you need guys like Morris who are flexible like that,” Stevens praised. “Morris came in and I thought his two threes in the late third were huge.”
Added teammate Marcus Smart, “For Morris to take on that responsibility, it shows his maturity and the professional that he is. He could’ve easily thrown a fit about it, but he didn’t. He controlled what he could control. He came out and gave us big minutes when he got out there and did what he was supposed to.”
Just because Morris didn’t get the start Tuesday night, doesn’t mean he’s out of the starting rotation permanently. Stevens says that the frontcourt pairing will be a “game-to-game decision” from here on out, meaning it will be totally matchup-based.
The Celtics missed having such versatility throughout the season, but now that their frontcourt is entirely healthy, they could use it to their advantage as they gear up for the postseason.
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