BOSTON -- By the time Aron Baynes looked up, it was too late.
The Boston Celtics big man 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.
Russ goes for posterizing dunk without the ball.
Russell Westbrook elevates for an epic dunk on Aaron Baynes but loses the ball on his way up.
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 logs only 18.3 minutes per game, but he starts each half alongside All-Star Al Horford in Boston's frontcourt, and there's an obvious difference in the Celtics' defensive intensity when Baynes is on the floor.
The Celtics own a defensive rating of 97.2 with Baynes on the court this season. That's the best individual defensive rating for a qualifying player in the NBA this season and it's also 4.3 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 is allowing a mere 0.75 points per play this season, according to Synergy Sports data. Among the 206 NBA players with at least 500 possessions defended, Baynes ranks No. 1 in points allowed per possession.
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 fourth on that same list of qualifying defenders while allowing 0.80 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 a Giannis 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 Matthew 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.
Greek Freak misses epic dunk.
Giannis Antetokounmpo goes up with the intentions of putting Aron Baynes on a poster, but the ball goes flying and he gets fouled.
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.
Greek Freak slams alley-oop dunk over Baynes.
Giannis Antetokounmpo gets the lob from Malcolm Brogdon and finishes with a strong dunk over Aaron Baynes.
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.
JR puts Baynes on a poster.
JR Smith attacks the rim and soars to throw down a one-handed hammer over Aron Baynes.
Towns drives for epic posterizer.
Karl-Anthony Towns flies to the basket and throws down a huge one-handed dunk over Aron Baynes.
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.
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."