Late in the second quarter of the Sixers’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics, Ben Simmons sent an underhand pass behind him to a trailing Joel Embiid on a fastbreak and Embiid threw down a dunk over Aron Baynes that shook the Wells Fargo Center.
It was the kind of dunk that would be watched over and over across all media platforms no matter the result of the game. Baynes became the punchline and Embiid was heralded for his athleticism and dominance.
But from the Celtics’ point of view, it was just a blip in the larger and more accurate story.
“All you see are the highlights of the dunks on Baynes, you don’t see the thousands of times he stops the ball,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after his team practiced at Temple on Sunday afternoon. “He just doesn’t care if he ends up on a highlight, he’s trying to do his job well. His job is to stop somebody from scoring and do it vertically without fouling, and he’s unbelievable at it, he’s one of the best in league at it.”
Embiid was guarded by Baynes for 53.8 percent of Saturday’s game and in that span Embiid went 6-for-13 from the floor and scored 14 of his 22 points.
That’s not bad for Embiid, and just about as good as the Celtics can hope to get out of Baynes against the Sixers’ most imposing player.
But it’s not the one-on-one match-up against Embiid that is the most critical for Boston. What Stevens is talking about is Baynes’ position within the wall that the Celtics have created that stops the Sixers from being able to score at will with their usual weapons.
The Celtics have limited Ben Simmons by closing off his usual downhill options and putting more pressure on the Sixers to score from the outside. It has been working. The Sixers are struggling against the league’s highest-rated defense, and the Celtics credit Baynes with a large part of that.
So how does Baynes continue to focus on the important plays rather than the ones that end up on highlight reels?
“It’s pretty easy on my part, I don’t watch ESPN or any of the sports shows or anything, I don’t watch any of that during playoff time,” Baynes said. “I’m just focused on what one group of people think, and that’s the group of people in our locker room.”
One Celtic who has taken notice of Baynes’ work ethic and impact on the game is Al Horford. The veteran said that getting dunked on can leave a lasting impression on the people who watch the highlights, but the team recognizes the things that matter and how Baynes affects the game.
On the other side of the ball Baynes has also added a long-range shot, joining the growing list of big men in the NBA who are able to stretch the floor.
“It’s a lot of credit to Aron because at the beginning of the year he wasn’t shooting those,” Horford said. “He has just kept working all year consistently. I don’t think I’ve seen a guy, within a season, go from not shooting certain shots from the perimeter, to shooting them with confidence in big moments in the playoffs and making it.”
Baynes shot just 12 three-point shots from the beginning of the 2017-18 season through March 28, missing them all. But in the final weeks of the regular season his confidence has grown and he’s gone 3-for-9 from deep. In the playoffs, Baynes is shooting 54.5 percent from three-point land (6-of-11).
Stevens said that when Baynes joined the Celtics, he didn’t know that the Australian center could turn into a shooter, but after watching him in practice it quickly became clear that it would be a part of his game that could develop nicely.
“I believe in him,” Stevens said.