MILWAUKEE, WI - As the Boston Celtics completed their first practice on return from the All-Star break, an imposing figure was unfortunately left on the sideline, in what has become an unfortunately familiar sight so far this season.
While Kyrie Irving and Al Horford among others worked on their three-point shot, Australian big man Aron Baynes was in a lengthy discussion with a Celtics staff member, still recovering from a left foot injury that caused him to miss the six games leading up to the break, his return date still unclear.
The foot injury has been a frustrating interruption for Baynes, who missed 13 games earlier in the season with a broken bone in his left hand. The wretched injury run is in direct contrast to his previous four seasons, where he suited up in 307 of a possible 328 games.
"Yeah, I've watched a few this year, it's not great," Baynes said with a shrug.
"We were just watching some film and there was only one of the games I was actually playing, and we'd gone back a bit of a way, so it's a bit upsetting I'm not out there going to battle with these guys night in night out."
Widely regarded as one of the locker room leaders on a Boston team laden with individual talent, Baynes has had to find a way to stay involved without being able to assert his physical 'follow my lead' approach on the floor.
He admits it hasn't been easy but stresses the importance of remaining present as much as possible, whether that be at practice or on game night.
"I'm on the baseline, I'm with the guys, talking to them. I try not to talk too much, I think sometimes guys get six or seven people in their ear when something bad happens so I'm just trying to offer support when I'm out there and at the same time, I'm just making sure everybody sees me doing the right thing. I'm pretty visible when I'm out doing what I need to do."
On the back of an unlikely playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Baynes was faced with a free agency decision: Look elsewhere for a more prominent role or return to Boston and launch an assault on the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Baynes re-signed with the Celtics, inking a two-year, $[U.S] 10.6 million contract, stating he had "unfinished business" in Boston.
"We were young, we did it with a lot of people that people didn't expect much from," Baynes said. "It's always fun going out and exceeding expectations, but while we exceeded theirs, we didn't exceed ours, that's one of those things."
The Celtics are well placed to once again claim home court advantage in the playoffs, though their current 37-22 win-loss record is already below lofty preseason predictions of 60-65 wins.
While the media microscope is firmly locked on a Boston locker room trying to integrate all their pieces, Baynes says there is little conflict within the group, instead pointing to good health being the key to their chances down the stretch of the NBA season.
"There's always challenges, every team faces challenges, we've just had a few different ones to what we did last year in the playoffs. It's a good thing though, we still have everyone available, nobody is out long term, which is one of the positives compared to last year."
"Our depth is so big that it doesn't matter if we are missing one or two guys, we still have the right guys that are able to step into the line-up and do what's needed to come out with a win."
While Baynes continues to work on his return to the floor, an aspect of his game he continues to improve is his shooting from beyond the arc.
4-for-29 from deep across 402 NBA appearances prior to last year's playoffs, Baynes erupted to knock down 11 of his 23 attempts from beyond the arc in 19 games. With non-shooting big men quickly evaporating from the game, Baynes had been honing his craft in the practice gym for years.
"I've always worked on it, it's something I've continued to work on since I first picked up a basketball; it's one of those things, you have to be able to put the ball in the hoop at the end of the day," Baynes acknowledged.
The difference between having the confidence to shoot at practice and actually pull the trigger in an NBA game, under the bright playoff lights?
"The confidence from Brad [Stevens], having the confidence from your coach telling you to shoot those open shots because it's good for the team," Baynes revealed.
That green light from Stevens naturally extends throughout the entirety of the roster.
"As a group we are confident in this team that everyone on this team, when they take a shot we're confident it's going in. We stand around watching each other shoot all day so it's definitely having that added confidence and it certainly helps having that little bit of swagger when you're shooting the ball."
As mentioned earlier, the Celtics are in no danger of missing the playoffs, but after last year, this group expects more, and anything less than an appearance in the NBA Finals would be deemed a failure.
"We still have higher expectations of what we can achieve as a group and that's what we are working towards every time we step on the floor, so hopefully we can take those extra steps and play for a couple extra weeks this season."
First things first, Baynes just needs to get healthy.