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Jaylen Brown’s triumph in the face of loss

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On a night that will define the first quarter of the 2017-2018 Celtics’ season, Jaylen Brown made the first big statement of his career while dealing with personal tragedy off the floor.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

As the defending champs sent the ball whizzing around the TD Garden in Tuesday’s night’s early-season marquee matchup, nobody in the NBA —not other teams, not other coaches, not fans— would’ve blamed the Boston Celtics for taking a loss on the chin at the hands of the Golden State Warriors and walking away proud of a 13-game win streak.

But Jaylen Brown wanted that 14th win over the champs. Bad.

For the Celtics, yes. For the fans, absolutely. But also for his best friend, who passed yesterday.

The news was just starting to work its way around the league by tipoff, as the Warriors threatened to take the lead and never look back. Brown had other plans.

The rangy Celtics sophomore engineered a career night with 22 & 7 and was the stopper on the defensive end against the Finals MVP, Kevin Durant. The performance helped extend Boston’s win streak and put Brown square in the hearts of a raucous sell-out 19,000 at the Garden and so many more watching at home.

He did it with emphatic dunks like the one off the steal from Steph Curry. He gave Kevin Durant a taste of his own medicine with his hesi-jimbo to keep the offense moving in the midst of a scoring drought.

And he put on a show for the real basketball nerds out there with defensive efforts like this fingertip block on Durant.

The athleticism necessary to fight over a screen and back into that play itself silences film rooms. The timing of the jump is enough to seed thoughts of Eastern Conference dominance.

On any night, the performance would’ve made the recaps and headlines tomorrow. Against the Warriors, it was the kind of effort that could spawn new defensive adjustments across the league as coaches scurry to plan for Brown. Let’s not forget that it’s Brown’s development that gave Danny Ainge confidence to trade Avery Bradley and Brad Stevens belief that he could start opposite the NBA’s premiere wings.

The stakes were high enough. Despite it’s early season date in November, last night’s win was a big game, but sometimes, tragically, life is bigger than basketball.

Brown’s high school best friend and teammate, Trevin Steede, passed away suddenly on Wednesday. According to USA Today’s (and CelticsBlog alum) Jared Weiss, Brown was sure he’d sit tonight out. Stevens was supportive, but a phone call lifted Brown up just enough to have him game ready.

In his post-game presser, Stevens said that Brown “was special tonight...he played really inspired.” After the game, an emotional Brown, who acknowledged Steede’s death via Instagram before Tuesday’s game and with another post soon afterwards, shared more about Steede:

“It was hard keeping my thoughts together, but, after talking to [Trevin’s] mom, his family, it inspired me to come out and play because I wasn’t in any shape to come out. I didn’t want to leave my room. But...they inspired me to come out and play. And I came out and played, and their spirit today [and] teammates helped me up and we pulled it out,” said Brown.

There’s a striking emotionality to a performance like Brown’s. Basketball, in all its symbolic glory, can drive athletes to pound near-toxic combinations of fear, rage, and deep sadness onto the court. Fans and opponents, acting as skeptic witnesses to these moments, can pounce on players when they’re down. But fans can also be hopeful citizens and family, sensing vulnerability and choosing to uplift.

As the Celtics battled through a slog of a fourth quarter, defending at a maddening pace as a team, the home crowd fed off Brown’s effort. The game had emotional flashes of Isaiah Thomas’ epic effort in the playoffs after his sister passed last spring. The win against the Warriors felt like it meant more than just an extension of a streak and amounted to more than a statement win over the league’s best team.

The Celtics and their fanbase coalesced around Brown as he battled his sadness and entered one of the best nights of his career into the record books. As he likely searched for meaning in the throes of loss, Boston welcomed Jaylen Brown home with a win.