The entire NBA wants to put Aron Baynes on a poster

Editor's note: This story originally ran on April 10 and has been updated following Celtics-Bucks Game 3.

MILWAUKEE -- Giannis Antetokounmpo's feet already were starting to dance in anticipation before the pass even arrived.

The Boston Celtics somehow lost track of Antetokounmpo while settling into a zone look during Game 3 of an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series on Friday, and the Greek Freak excitedly spied a clear runway to the basket. Just about everyone knew what was coming next.

Well, maybe not Celtics big man Aron Baynes, whose back was turned to the play as Antetokounmpo started to race toward the hoop. But this scene has played out so frequently this season that Baynes quickly figured out the plot.

Antetokounmpo took one dribble then, leaping from the dotted line below the free throw stripe, launched into the air. Baynes shuffled to the top of the charge circle and leaped vertically.

Their bodies collided, cameras flashed and Antetokounmpo somehow muscled home a right-handed flush before crashing to the floor as Bucks players tumbled off their bench in celebration.

"Once [Antetokounmpo] gets momentum and he gathers, there's so much he can do," said Matthew Dellavedova, who assisted on the dunk. "I know he's got Baynesy a few times [this season], but Baynesy, I know he doesn't care. He's just trying to help his team win."

Antetokounmpo's poster was the lasting image of Milwaukee's dominant Game 3 triumph that trimmed Boston's series lead to 2-1. But it was merely the latest instance in which Baynes put his team ahead of his own well-being while trying to contest a would-be dunker.

By the time he looked up, it was too late.

Baynes was sitting on the TD Garden parquet floor trying to put on the left shoe that had just popped off while trying to take a charge from Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook.

But the Celtics scored so quickly at the other end of the floor, that before Baynes knew it, Westbrook had the ball again and was racing his way.

"We made eye contact when he was at about half-court," Baynes said. "I knew he was coming at me."

So did everyone else on the court. Carmelo Anthony's eyes darted from Westbrook to Baynes and, sensing what was about to happen, Anthony cleared the runway.

Few would have blamed Baynes if he simply covered his head or rolled out of the way of the speeding reigning MVP. But as Westbrook raced past Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum at the top of the 3-point arc, Baynes did the only thing that made sense to him -- he scrambled to his feet then leapt to contest as a full-throttle Westbrook launched into him.

The force of their mid-air collision knocked Baynes from just inside the charge circle to below the baseline. A desperation swipe by Tatum might have caused Westbrook to lose control of the ball going up and prevented Baynes from enduring an undesirable career highlight.

Instead, the sequence displayed what Baynes has brought to the Celtics all season: A sturdy backline defender who is utterly fearless in giving up his body despite opponents routinely attempting to put him on a poster.

"My job is to try to make every shot attempt of the opponent's as tough as I can. If that's me putting my body on the line then each time I'm going to step up and do it," Baynes said. "It's fun for me. I like it when guys are focused on [trying to dunk on] me because then they're not focused on their game."

Baynes logged only 18.3 minutes per game during the 2017-18 season, but he started most halves alongside All-Star Al Horford in Boston's frontcourt, and there was an obvious difference in the Celtics' defensive intensity when Baynes was on the floor.

The Celtics owned a defensive rating of 97.0 with Baynes on the court. That was the best individual defensive rating for a qualifying player in the NBA this season and it was also 4.5 points per 100 possessions better than Boston's league-best defensive rating of 101.5 overall.

"We made eye contact when he was at about half-court. I knew he was coming at me."
Celtics center Aron Baynes, on Russell Westbrook's near-poster dunk

Individually, Baynes allowed a mere 0.739 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. Among the 207 NBA players with at least 500 possessions defended this season, Baynes ranked No. 1 in points allowed per possession (and by a healthy margin with Golden State's Andre Iguodala second at 0.768 points allowed per play).

It's why Celtics coach Brad Stevens calls Baynes an "elite" NBA defender. And it's why Horford, maybe Boston's top candidate to earn All-Defense honors this season, can't gush enough about the Australian giant who has drastically eased the load up front this season.

"He makes my job so much easier," said Horford, who ranks sixth on that same list of qualifying defenders while allowing 0.799 points per play, per Synergy.

"People always obviously talk about our defense and how great it is, but [Baynes'] impact is what has put us in this position. And nobody talks about him for Defensive Player of the Year and all those things. I'm not a numbers guy, but I think his impact goes a long way.

"Honestly, he's the ultimate team guy."

And each time Baynes goes up to contest a dunk, he proves that again ... and again.

Jaylen Brown was one of the first teammates to reach Baynes as he laid face-down under the basket.

Baynes had just put his life in jeopardy when he contested an Antetokounmpo dunk attempt, and now Baynes needed a minute to, as he would later quip, make sure all his parts were in the right place.

A Dellavedova screen had pinned both Horford and Shane Larkin, allowing Antetokounmpo a free run at the hoop late in the first quarter of an October meeting between the Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. Baynes left his man on the opposite block and rose up as the Greek Freak reared back for a ferocious tomahawk.

Usually it's opposing players that bounce off Baynes, but this time it was his 6-foot-10, 260-pound frame crashing hard to the floor. Brown offered a couple of supportive pats on Baynes' backside as Boston's big man got back to his feet, but even he couldn't help but question his decision to contest.

"As a teammate you respect it, but I was like, 'Oh, s--- boy, some of those possessions ain't worth it," a smiling Brown said. "Giannis didn't get [the dunk], so I commended him. But if he did -- that would have been ugly."

The Celtics won that night but the highlight that seemed to play on a loop for the next 24 hours was Antetokounmpo's near-dunk. Some still suggest it was the dunk-of-the-year material, even though Antetokounmpo didn't even complete it. Asked what it's like when a moment like that is the only way he might end up on SportsCenter, Baynes downplayed the notion.

"I could care less. I barely watch any of that. I don't have that on. When I'm at home, Disney Channel is on," said Baynes, the father of a 2-year-old son, Mason.

What makes Baynes stepping up against Antetokounmpo even more remarkable is that, just days earlier in Boston, Antetokounmpo dunked twice on Baynes during the Celtics' home-opener. Antetokounmpo finished a two-handed slam over Baynes after getting the big man off his feet in the first half, then finished an alley-oop lob over Baynes later in the game.

Who in their right mind tries to step up again after one of the league's most athletic players dunks on you twice?

"Baynes is one of those guys where he'll just keep coming," Brown said. "He might get dunked on once but he might block you two or three times. He doesn't really care."

Told it takes someone a little different to step up in that situation, Brown smiled and confirmed.

"Baynes is a weird guy. There's not a lot he cares about. He cares about his family, he cares about winning. All the stuff in between, he just doesn't care about."

For every near-posterization that sends NBA Twitter into a frenzy, there are plenty of dunks that, you know, actually count in the box score.

In February, J.R. Smith got past Kyrie Irving on the perimeter and attacked the basket before finishing a strong one-handled slam over a shuffling Baynes, then stared the big man down. A month later, the Celtics lost track of Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns trailing down the court and, when Baynes tried to step up, KAT finished a tough one-handed flush through contact.

It makes you wonder if there's something about Baynes that makes opponents consistently target him. Teammates insist it's simply that Baynes is more willing to step up than maybe any other player in the league. He truly is wired differently than most NBA big men.

"Not only wired different but also it shows how unselfish he is," Horford said. "A lot of guys -- and you know this if you watch the NBA -- the [dunker is] coming into the lane and it's like, 'Eh. You know what? I love you, team. Coach, you're probably going to yell at me, but I'm going to get out of there.'

"And, Aron, he's taking responsibility. I don't think I've been with a guy like that that's so committed to protecting the basket."

For his efforts, Baynes has been credited with a team-high 17 charges drawn this season, according to NBA.com/Stats, which is tied for ninth in the league.

"I'm just trying to do the right thing for the team every time I step out on the floor," Baynes said. "When we play well, we build from defense and that's what I try to focus on."

Baynes surprisingly declined a $6.5 million player option in Detroit to test free agency last summer then signed a one-year, $4.3 million deal to join Boston. For Baynes, who won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, it was more about finding the right fit and he's emphatic he made the right decision by signing with a contender like Boston.

The injuries the Celtics have endured this season only make Baynes and his defensive presence that much more important as a young team prepares for the postseason.

In Boston, Baynes has been encouraged to expand his range. In a game last month against the Raptors, he hit a pair of 3-pointers, this after connecting on just 1 of 7 attempts in his first five seasons in the league, and hit two more 3-pointers in Friday's Game 3 loss to the Bucks.

While Baynes is trying to keep up with a changing league, he doesn't see himself as a floor-spacing big man. And he knows what butters his bread. It's defense, and stepping up even when even his teammates wouldn't be mad if he didn't.

"That one with [Westbrook], OK he's a guard. I get that. Giannis though? Some of those are just not worth it," Brown said. "But Baynes is pretty tough, man. He's a big boy."