BOSTON – Down by one with 21.2 seconds left on the clock in overtime, Boston Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum dribbled the ball up the court. Boston had battled back from a 13-point third-quarter deficit against the New York Knicks after being up by 15 themselves early in the first quarter.
In a flashback to Boston’s ugly loss against the Miami Heat on Tuesday, Tatum whipped the ball across the court, but this time, it found its target, landing in the hands of Malcolm Brogdon. He then got the ball to Jaylen Brown, who was fouled by Jalen Brunson, earning him a chance to put the Celtics up by one with two free throws.
Brown was 5-of-5 from the charity stripe before that moment.
First free throw - short. Second free throw - short.
Two missed free throws in the dying moments of a game that the Celtics battled hard to get back into. Two missed free throws that led to the team’s third straight loss. Two missed free throws to cap off a rough night for Brown.
But what was head coach Joe Mazzulla’s message?
“I love you, Jaylen. I believe in you.”
Mazzulla, who has shown an unwavering level of support for his players all season, refused to send any sort of negativity after the tough loss. He was pressed for a more in-depth answer twice, but gave the same response both times, “I love you, Jaylen.”
Throughout the course of his career, Brown has never been a great free-throw shooter. In fact, this is the best season he’s had from the stripe. Improving from an ugly 68.5% in his rookie season, he’s up to a career-high 78.5% this year on a career-high 7.5 attempts per game. But in a moment when the Celtics needed him to capitalize on that improvement, both Brown fell short.
“Just gotta be better, to be honest,” Brown said of his two missed free throws. “Tonight was just a rough game. And I’m a better basketball player than I played today. Those two missed free throws kind of embodied the whole game. Didn’t really get going. Didn’t give my team enough energy to win. And that’s what happens when you don’t come out and give your best. I’ll be better.”
The missed free throws that helped seal the win for New York wrapped up an ugly night for Brown, who struggled to find any sort of rhythm all night. He ended the night with 22 points, nine rebounds, and two assists but shot just 8-of-22 from the field and 1-of-8 from three-point range.
He pointed towards a lack of overall aggressiveness as the culprit behind his subpar performance against the Knicks.
“[I] didn’t insert myself into the game,” Brown explained. “Was kind of just waiting around for the game to kind of come to you… I’m one of the players that can be aggressive and kind of take control of the game. I didn’t do that. I wasn’t efficient tonight. I had a couple of turnovers… Overall, just a lackluster performance. I could have played a lot better. I mean, give credit to New York. I think they came out and played hard. But, it just wasn’t the version of Jaylen I know I can be.”
Brown’s inefficiency was largely outweighed by Tatum’s performance. The freshly-named All-Star starter dropped 35 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists on 12-of-26 shooting overall and 2-of-7 shooting from deep. He was 0-of-5 in overtime, but at the end of the night, Tatum had a similar message for Brown.
“Everybody needs a pick-me-up,” Tatum said. “But we’ve got the utmost confidence in him. I can’t bet on NBA games, but I would bet everything I got (that) if he was in that situation again, he would knock them both down. So, just short-term memory, move on, and get ready for Saturday.”
With their loss, Boston fell to 35-16 on the season, which still gives them a two-game lead atop the Eastern Conference. However, they are only one game up on the Philadelphia 76ers in the loss column and just two on the Milwaukee Bucks.
And with a five-game stretch ahead of them that includes the Los Angeles Lakers (likely with a healthy Anthony Davis), Brooklyn Nets, and 76ers, maintaining their place above the East won’t be a walk in the park.
In the end, this loss may have hinged on two free throws by Brown at the end of overtime, but the sting of two straight misses isn’t one he plans on carrying with him moving forward.
“I think for your own sanity, you just let it go,” Brown said. “You come out, keep playing basketball, and you come out and be a better version of yourself. I love this game. And I love the highs and lows that come with it. So, you don’t shy away from it. You take it, you wear it, and you be better in the next one.”