Lineup Shake-Up Sparks C's To Brink of Next Round

BOSTON – “It’s different when he’s at the 5.”

Simple statement. Deep meaning.

Brad Stevens made that comment just hours after he surprised everyone outside of Boston’s locker room Tuesday night by subbing rookie Semi Ojeleye into the starting lineup for Game 5 against Milwaukee. Ojeleye replaced center Aron Baynes in the starting unit.

While much of the initial attention shined down upon Ojeleye and his impact, an even deeper impact was being made by the new man at the 5: Al Horford.

Horford, who started the first four games of this series at power forward, shifted over to center Tuesday night, and having his skill set at that position at both ends of the floor changed everything for the Celtics.

In layman’s terms: it was different.

“We needed to make an adjustment and do something,” Horford said of the switch after Boston downed Milwaukee 92-87 in Game 5, “and Coach (Stevens) saw that and he went with his gut and that, and a combination of Marcus Smart, I think paid off for us tonight.”

Accurate.

Horford dominated Tyler Zeller, Thon Maker, and anyone else Milwaukee threw at him at the center position. He was the best player on the court from start to finish.

His presence, combined with an elite energy boost from Marcus Smart, who returned from a six-week absence, propelled Boston to the pivotal win.

No player on Boston’s roster scored more points than Horford’s 22. No player in the game grabbed more rebounds than Horford’s 14. And while the big man tallied only three assists on the night, it was some of his passes out of the post that mattered most.

Boston took advantage of Horford’s size and skill advantage by pounding the rock in to him at the low block. While the majority of his assists are often tossed from the elbows or the perimeter, Horford did damage with his passing from the block Tuesday night.

Two of Horford’s three assists on the night were dished from his post-ups on the low block. One of those assists arrived with 1:49 left in the game, on what may have been the most important play of the night.

Horford posted up on Giannis Antetokounmpo on the right block, faced up on the Greek Freak, took one dribble to his right and tossed a jump pass to Jaylen Brown for a layup. That bucket gave the C’s a commanding seven-point lead during at the most critical stage of the game.

“I felt like I was going into a couple of post-moves there, and then at the last second, I saw that opening,” said Horford.

He added, “Jaylen, a couple times, he just did a great job of relocating, reading me. It was impressive. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit, because if he didn’t show himself to me, those plays wouldn’t have happened.”

They wouldn’t have happened had Horford not been playing the 5, either. The same can be said for the production of the C’s defense Tuesday night.

Boston’s defense was reeling heading into Game 5. Milwaukee had picked it apart to the tune of a playoff-leading shooting percentage of 54.2 percent during the first four games of the series. With Boston’s new lineup, however, the Bucks turned as cold as the Wisconsin tundra.

Milwaukee shot a series-low 36.8 percent Tuesday night. Antetokounmpo was limited to series-lows of 16 points and 10 field goal attempts, marking only the third game this season during which he attempted 10 or fewer shots. Khris Middleton shot a series-low 42.9 percent from the field. Maker was a non-factor after emerging as a game-changer during the previous two games.

And it was all due, in large part, to Horford sliding over to the 5.

With Horford playing center, Ojeleye playing power forward, and Smart back in the fold, the Celtics were able to effectively switch on nearly every pick-and-roll. Horford was not a mismatch against a center, and Ojeleye was not a mismatch against a power forward. Smart, meanwhile, comfortably defended everyone. The resulting lack of mismatches along Milwaukee’s frontline damaged its ability to orchestrate offense.

That’s a far cry from what took place during Games 3 and 4, when the Bucks took it to the Celtics in Milwaukee. The Bucks consistently generated mismatches across the floor and exploited them through their stars.

During Game 5, it was the Celtics, with Horford at center, who were exploiting them.

As Stevens said, it’s different when he’s at the 5. Very different.

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