On a team as talented as these Celtics, in a season that has started this unusually slowly, you hit a point where the “[Player X] is figuring things out” articles start to write themselves. Just last week, after the Celtics’ victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, I was telling you how Gordon Hayward started to find himself in the wake of his own slow start, attacking the basket and playing with the aggression Kyrie Irving wanted to see from him. Before that, it was it was Jayson Tatum, who rid himself of the Kobe Plague and asserted himself as a top scorer again. Before that, it was Kyrie Irving, who cut off his hair and found his jumper again.
Now, seemingly, it’s Jaylen Brown’s turn.
Jaylen Brown believes he's coming off the bench and he's good with it: "At the end of the day, it's basketball. I believe in my ability, the coaching staff believes in my ability, so I think coming off the bench, I think people make it a bigger deal than what it really is."— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) December 5, 2018
That, to me, is an exceptionally interesting quote.
See, with all the Celtics have dealt with through the first 24 games of the season, you could make a case that nobody on the roster has more of a reason to feel frustrated than Jaylen Brown. After a breakout 2017-18 campaign and a starring role in the Celtics’ improbable run to the Eastern Conference — a role that tends to be a little bit forgotten in favor of contributions from Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier — this season has not proven to be a worthy follow-up. Brown is shooting just 25% from the three-point arc (bringing the “he can’t actually shoot” crowd back in droves) and has generally looked wholly uncertain of his role on this fully stocked roster. Add to that an unfortunate back injury, and you have the recipe for an understandably unhappy young player.
And yet, last night against the Knicks, it was apparent from the moment Brown checked in that he had no intention of dwelling on that slow start any longer. Brown barged into the game with five quick points on two drives, both of which drew fouls and one of which resulted in an and-one. Talk about setting a tone.
Shortly thereafter, he would race ahead on a fast break with Gordon Hayward and take flight for a dunk that looked like it was ripped straight from last season.
In truth, while this was certainly a statement game, it was also a continuation of some positive trends that Brown has been showing for some time now. Getting to — and finishing at — the rim hasn’t necessarily been an issue. For the month of November, he shot a very palatable 67% at the rim on 49 attempts; across a full season, that would be far and away the best mark he’s posted in his short pro career.
Instead, the larger issue has been one of consistency. He’s capable of attacking the rim and asserting himself offensively, but he often fades into the background for long stretches during games. We’ve seen Brown get off to some quick starts this season, but they often seem to taper off after the first few minutes. Last month against the Toronto Raptors, he flew out of the gate with seven points in the first quarter... then failed to score a single point for the rest of the game.
Not so against the Knicks. Instead of fading away, those first few minutes established a trend that would carry on through the game: Brown was in attack mode, over and over again. Six of his seven made buckets came at the rim, as he blew past mismatches, attacked slow rotations, and generally played with visible confidence. This time, the fourth quarter was arguably his best, as he tacked on eight more points to end the night on a high note.
Brown didn’t quiet all concerns, of course. On the surface, the poor three-point shooting that has plagued Brown all season did not necessarily improve last night — he missed both of his attempts from beyond the arc, and at times showed the same hesitance that had prevailed through the beginning of the season.
Still, even his missed threes were quick-trigger affairs, suggesting he still has some willingness to let it fly from range. These are the kinds of looks you want to see Brown taking, and that they missed doesn’t change the fact that they were the results of good process.
In all, Brown would pile on a season-high 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field (including 7-of-9 from the charity stripe), his best performance of the season. Sometimes, struggling players just need to see the ball go through the net, even if it comes against the lowly New York Knicks.
A couple days ago, CelticsBlog’s Alex Kungu wrote a piece talking directly to Brown. In it, he referenced a key tenant in Doc Rivers’ coaching philosophy: be a star in your role. It doesn’t matter whether you start or come off the bench, it doesn’t matter if you play 40 minutes or 20 — find out how to contribute to winning basketball, and everything else will come after.
Whether he read that particular letter or not, Jaylen Brown clearly understands the message. Yes, his return was an exciting statement, and at the same time, yes, there is still work to be done. But Brown looked like a player who was far from trapped in his own head. Like he said himself: it was just basketball.