Last-Minute Lineup Adjustment Proves Critical for C’s in Game 5 Win

BOSTON – Brad Stevens was reluctant to reveal his starting lineup to the media Thursday evening ahead of Game 5 of the Eastern Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It turns out, something was up his sleeve.

After dropping Games 3 and 4 in Cleveland, the Celtics coach decided it was time for change. So, he swapped Aron Baynes into the starting rotation for Marcus Morris, and it made all the difference in the world.

Baynes’ addition allowed Boston to start off the game with a big presence in the front court, which was critical after losing consecutive rebounding battles by double-digits. With Baynes clogging the lane and battling Cleveland’s bigs on the boards, the Celtics defense was able to thrive.

As a result, Boston won both the rebounding battle and the defensive fight, all while handing the Cavaliers a convincing, 96-83 defeat, and grabbing a 3-2 series advantage.

From the start, Baynes was matched up against Cleveland center Tristan Thompson, a physical body-banger who has historically given Boston issues on the glass with the most recent being a 12-rebound, Game 4 effort.

In Game 5, however, Thompson ran into all of Australia, and he couldn’t find his way around. He was limited to series lows of 1 point and six rebounds over 26 minutes, while Baynes countered with six points, seven rebounds and a team-high three blocked shots over 29 minutes.

Cavs coach Ty Lue believes that matchup advantage was critical to Boston’s 32-19 start, which helped set the tone for an eventual win.

“I think considering what happened in Games 3 and 4 when Tristan was great on the glass and finishing around the basket, to start Baynes with a bigger body, going bigger with him and [Al] Horford was pretty good,” said Lue. “And Morris came off the bench and had a good game (13 points, six rebounds), so it was the right move.”

Stevens explained he made the move partly for that matchup advantage and party because it would allow for smoother transitions with his rotations throughout the game.

“The purpose for that change was we're going to have to play big some. We wanted to play big a little bit more,” said Stevens. “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 (Morris and Marcus Smart) a lot of minutes tonight.”

The reason why Baynes was not starting earlier in the series was because Cleveland initially started small. During Game 1, the Cavs started George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Kevin Love, so Boston’s best bet was to match them with a small ball lineup, having Morris at the 4 and Horford at the 5.

It didn’t work out so well for Cleveland, as it was blown out by 25 points in Game 1. That prompted Lue to swap Thompson in for Korver, placing the former at the 5 while sliding Love and James down to the 4 and 3 positions, respectively.

The Cavs played much better following that move, but the C’s continued with their small lineup until Game 5 when they countered back by going big as well.

The lineup alteration went smoothly for Boston, probably because Baynes already had 76 regular season and postseason starts under his belt during the 2017-18 campaign.

“I think for our team in general, it's the lineup that we were going with most of the year, or for a good part of the year,” said Horford, who finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds. “I felt like it was great for us defensively. They made adjustments after Game 1. We kind of stuck around with the same lineup. But I think that just by doing that, it was a change that worked in our favor.”

Largely thanks to that change, the Celtics are now just one win away from a trip to the NBA Finals. First, however, they must return to Cleveland for Game 6.

Which begs the question: Will the Cavs make a counter-adjustment with their season hanging in the balance? The C’s will have to just wait until Friday night, right before tip-off, to find out.