The Boston Celtics only having one All-Star was the correct outcome for this team and its performance this season at the time of voting. You may have looked at Jaylen Brown’s stats versus other Eastern Conference candidates and not seen a huge gap, but you have to remember: the reserves were announced on Feb. 10. And while the Celtics were in the midst of what, in hindsight, was a surge that turned the tide of their season for the better, they were still only 31-25 and seventh in the East at the time. No team in that position, particularly given such an up-and-down start to the season, is getting two All-Star nods. Especially not when one of them was a fringe nominee to begin with.
But just because Jaylen Brown wasn't an All-Star doesn’t make his season and steady growth over time any less impressive. Nor does Jayson Tatum’s 54-point outburst in the Celtics’ 126-120 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday make Brown’s mild-mannered 21-point outing any less interesting to unpack. (In his return from an ankle injury, no less.)
You know how sports and news networks love to hit you with the “while you were sleeping” headlines and highlights? Consider this the inaugural “while you were focused so heavily on the dude dropping a 50-piece,” despite the fact that that is totally understandable.
As I’ve watched Brown this season — really, over the course of the last few seasons — I’ve noticed that he’s putting together the pieces of a fascinating puzzle, one that could render him irreplaceable. He’s equally patient and aggressive, toggling back and forth between the two states of mind, allowing them to coexist in this unconventional, ingenious way. It’s working; it’s often frightening how versatile he is as a scorer.
In the past, Brown might have optioned to rise up for the open triple or slow down the possession by pulling it out and passing it around a bit. But here, he seems to know his plan of action before the catch. As though he heard the stray voice ESPN’s microphones picked up shouting, “five on four!!!,” he catches and bolts, seeing the seas parted just how he likes them. He ditches any thought of patience at the door, bursts through it, and finishes high above the rim with what probably could’ve been a dunk. Given how fresh his ankle injury is, I admit I audibly yelped when he appeared to float to the rim a la Mary Poppins with her umbrella. His landing gear worked, thank goodness.
Brown was four-for-five in the paint on Sunday, an area on the floor in which he’s frequenting far more often and is evidently much more comfortable working in. In each of his last three seasons, he’s attempted 6.9 or more field goals in the paint per game after never attempting more than 4.9 shots in that zone in each of the three seasons prior, per NBA tracking data. He’s scored more than nine paint points per game in each of those last three seasons, too, after not scoring more than 6.3 in his first three seasons. Now, that shift is obviously indicative of a bigger shift in Brown’s overall duties. He’s playing more minutes and thus taking more shots. With great power comes great responsibility, and Brown has both.
But it’s hardly just a matter of taking more shots. It’s about a player’s shot chart becoming more diverse, their ability to add a variety of shots to their repertoire over time, and becoming more confident in their abilities in the process. Brown’s education and evolution in that regard has been a sight to behold. He’s not necessarily at home in the paint, rather an experienced Airbnb renter. He knows his way around the area, and he uses his time there efficiently. He only averages 1.9 paint touches per game this season, but he’s scoring 98.9 percent of the time on those touches — second among Celtics who have played in 15 or more games for the team, trailing only Jayson Tatum.
One of the best things he’s added to his bag, as the kids say, is this masterful ability to take advantage of his defender’s backward momentum while maximizing his own. Using a combination of strength and awareness, Brown dips his shoulder into his defender, not fouling them but bumping them out of position, causing them to stumble. It gives him the space to rise up and finish over the remaining defense in the painted area. I love it more every single time I see it.
Against Brooklyn, he was a bit more subtle with this move. On a drive late in the second quarter, he dipped his shoulder off the dribble but later straightened up and legally used his elbows and his length to create space. Bruce Brown stays in close, but Brown has already begun elevating. He has the upper hand. In the end, he has the bucket, too.
That’s often the case — Brown drives 10.6 times per game and scores more than half the time, per NBA tracking data. He’s elevating his game every time he elevates toward the rim, full-speed ahead. Even when he is disrupted, he has such a rapid second leap that he can sometimes corral his miss and find an open teammate.
His aggressiveness doesn't always come on the drive. There have been plenty of instances in which Brown finds a genuinely good shot early on in the possession and fires away.
And then, there’s the times when he’s patient. Even with the shot clock winding down and the fate of the game potentially hanging in the balance.
“It was huge,” head coach Ime Udoka said of Brown being available after such a quick layoff with the injury. “Credit to him for taking care of himself treatment-wise and getting the workouts in where he was confident in it. He said he was fine to go with no limits or restrictions. And then producing like that, which we needed against these guys.”
Right now, the Celtics look as though they could produce like that across the board, against any team, any time, any place. Their turnaround since the start of February has been remarkable. Brown himself said yesterday, “I think we still have yet to hit our peak.”
He seems to have a knack for speaking this sort of thing into existence.
The energy has certainly shifted. As has Brown’s play over the course of his long-term evolution as a player. I don’t know that that’s much of a coincidence.