Celtics Preparing for Tuesday's Battle of the Bigs

WALTHAM, Mass. – Traditional basketball is still alive, contrary to what many may believe.

Need proof? Tune in Tuesday night to watch the Celtics host the Pelicans at TD Garden.

Boston and New Orleans will each open up the game with traditional lineups that feature two true big men. These lineups have become a rare breed in the NBA, which has quickly shifted toward modern-day small-ball.

The Celtics and the Pelicans, however, are exceptions. Boston will start Al Horford and Aron Baynes, and the Pelicans will start Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. All four of those players qualify as “traditional” bigs, though Horford, Davis and Cousins possess skill sets that are far more eclectic than what big men showcased in decades past.

Davis and Cousins are the main reason why Horford and Baynes will start alongside each other Tuesday night. Brad Stevens is one of few coaches in the league who adjusts his starting lineup based upon who Boston’s opponent is any given night; if a team plays small-ball, Marcus Morris will likely start, and if a team uses a traditional lineup like New Orleans’, Baynes will start.

The combination of Davis and Cousins is traditional, but the fact that both players are superstar talents make them a unique duo.

“I just think you have two of the best bigs in the league playing next to each other,” Stevens said Monday afternoon of Davis and Cousins. “They’re supremely skilled.”

Some, in correlation to the league’s small-ball movement, wondered about whether Davis and Cousins would be able to coincide when New Orleans acquired Cousins during last year’s All-Star break. Less than a year later, here the Pelicans are, sitting in the sixth seed in the Western Conference with each big man averaging at least 25.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.

“There’s a reason they’re seventh offensively in the league right now,” Stevens said. “They’re pretty good.”

The Celtics, meanwhile, are even better. They sit atop the Eastern Conference with 34 wins and lead the league in defensive rating. A key cog to that success is the Horford-Baynes combination.

The two big men have started 28 games alongside each other this season, and Boston has won 21 of those games. Each big also ranks in the top 14 in the league in defensive rating, regardless of position (minimum 11 games played).

Baynes has been a defensive anchor for Boston all season long. He trails only Dejounte Murray in defensive rating with his mark of 94.7.

Horford, meanwhile, is the key to Boston’s lineup flexibility. Without him, Stevens wouldn’t be able to adjust his starting lineups as seamlessly as he does.

“I think that what Al allows you to do is he gives you another guy who shoots like a traditional guard, so that he can play both spots,” explained Stevens. “And his ability to defend 4s (power forwards) allows him to play with anybody. He can play small or big.”

Tuesday night, Horford is going to need to play small and big. He’ll he forced to cover both Davis, who is a do-it-all forward, and Cousins, who is traditionally a post-up center who can also pass and shoot 3-pointers. There will also be moments throughout the game during which New Orleans will play small ball, with only one of their star bigs on the floor as its center.

The opening tip and the majority of the game, however, will be all about the battle of the bigs. Tuesday’s matchup is going to be a flashback to the traditional basketball of the early 2000s, with the caveat being that these true big men are so skilled that they’re capable of doing almost anything on the court.