CLEVELAND – Shortly after the final horn had sounded and the Boston Celtics’ 128-122 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was secured, LeBron James and Jaylen Brown had a brief conversation after the game with James doing most of the talking.
“He just said he would see me down the road, good job. . . and he said some other things that I won’t mention,” said Brown with a smile.
Brown scoring a career-high 19 points in his first NBA start was impressive.
Doing so in a nationally televised game, against the defending NBA champions who are led by James … that’s pretty cool, too.
Cavaliers 128, Celtics 122
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But that moment after the game with James, more than anything else that went down on Thursday night, speaks to how the 20-year-old rookie has arrived.
Because like most veteran players, you don’t come into the league and get on James’ radar unless your potential shines in a way that’s undeniable.
That was indeed the case on Thursday with Brown making his first NBA start in place of Jae Crowder who is out for at least a couple weeks with an ankle injury.
It was the kind of scenario that nobody would have been surprised to see the rookie buckle under the pressure.
But instead of being overwhelmed by the moment, he made the night into one that may very well be remembered as him coming of age in the NBA.
Prior to the game, head coach Brad Stevens said the decision to start Brown over Marcus Smart was more about having Smart playing more with the second unit which has struggled in the early going of this season, than it was about getting Brown on the floor with the first unit.
But when all was said and done, the night belonged to Brown.
“He played really hard,” Stevens said of Brown. “Obviously he made shots and did a lot of good things. There’s a … you never expect a guy to make 50 percent of his three's every day. At the end of the day, if he brings that same tenacity and focus defensively, he can just keep getting better. Today was a good step in the right direction.”
And it comes at a time when the Celtics are a battered bunch, having played Thursday’s game without Crowder as well as Al Horford (concussion).
Boston has a slew of established veterans who did a lot of good things on Thursday, like Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley scoring 30 and 26 points, respectively.
But for this franchise to continue growing into a legit Eastern Conference power, they are going to need a wild card of sorts to emerge, a player whose impact exceeds expectations.
Brown could very well be that player.
He has carried himself with the confidence of a proven veteran since he was drafted by Boston with the third overall pick in last June’s NBA draft, a trait that has endeared him to most of his teammates who acknowledge that he is different but in a good way.
And the way he handled himself against James only strengthens the trust he has established already with his more seasoned, battle-tested brethren.
“He didn’t show no backdown,” Thomas said. “I’m proud of him.”
But as Stevens reminds us, it’s not like Brown was a borderline NBA prospect.
“(20) years old, third pick in the NBA draft, pretty good basketball player right?” Stevens said. “He’s probably grown up thinking that.”
More than the numbers and Brown’s approach to dealing with James, Stevens was impressed with his approach in terms of executing the game plan.
“What was better was how detailed he was on some things, especially defensively,” Stevens said.
It all added up to an impressive first of what should be many starts, and ended with Brown getting to spend some time with James who is a player Brown readily admits he has admired for some time.
“I respect LeBron not just on the floor but off,” Brown said. “What he does off the floor, donates to inner-city kids, just how he handles himself. He’s never been in trouble with the law or anything like that. He’s just a great role model for somebody like me. I watched him growing up, and it’s kind of shaped me to who I am.”
But don’t get it twisted.
Brown is far from star-struck when it comes to James, evident by him going at him on many possessions with one resulting in a dunk.
“It’s different when you get in between those lines,” Brown said. “All that (respect) goes out the window. At the end of the day I’m a competitor. I think I’m more competitive than a lot of people in this league. I was focused; I wasn’t nervous, star-struck or anything. I came out and had a job to do and I tried to do it to the best of my ability.”