Bench role doesn't slow Jaylen Brown

Bench role doesn't slow Jaylen Brown

BOSTON — The perils of a rare four-day break in the NBA schedule is that the topic du jour sometimes stays on the menu for the entire recess. So in the painful crawl to Thursday’s Celtics-Knicks matchup, much ink was spilled and breath expended trying to determine if 22-year-old Jaylen Brown would embrace a shift to a reserve role while returning from an injury that had cost him his starting gig.

It was a worthy storyline. After all, six months ago, Brown was the Celtics’ leading scorer as an injury-ravaged Boston squad nearly clawed its way into the NBA Finals. He and Jayson Tatum were the toast of the town; two young stars ready to help the Celtics elevate to title contention with the return of All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving.

But, at the start of the 2018-19 season, Brown found himself fighting an offensive funk and landed in the crosshairs when Celtics fans tried to self-diagnose Boston’s uneven start and the impossibly bad play of a talent-loaded starting 5. As soon as the team started winning in his absence, it only emboldened his detractors.

So even as Brown repeatedly pledged to embrace a reserve role, particularly with the Celtics finding that groove with a new-look starting lineup in his absence, he needed to prove it.

And he did.

Brown scored a season-high 21 points on an efficient 7-of-10 shooting while getting to the free-throw line for a season-high nine attempts in Boston’s 128-100 win over the Knicks at TD Garden.

"Basketball is basketball, whether it’s coming off the bench or walking out of the stands,” said Brown. "It’s all basketball. Just come out and play.”

The most encouraging part of Brown’s night, beyond the confirmation that, yes, he can thrive in a backup role, was the way he got his points. Brown repeatedly attacked the basket, shunning perimeter shots in search of layups, and he was repeatedly rewarded.

The Celtics had torn the game open a bit late in the fourth quarter when Brown took a little handoff from Terry Rozier behind the 3-point line. Even as three Knicks defenders sagged towards the paint, Brown shunned the deep look and instead put the ball on the ground and drove directly at a trio of blue shirts on the blocks. 

If he gets swatted, maybe we look at the sequence differently, but Brown instead muscled home a tough left-handed layup for his final points of the game. All but one of his seven field goals came away from the rim overall. 

And his aggression wasn’t lost on teammates.

"I just think that’s when he’s at his best, when he’s able to just read the floor, attack the right way,” said Al Horford. "There’s not a lot of guys that can stay in front of him, so it’s good when he’s playing like that.”

Brown said his back felt fine ("It feels better when you get a win, I’ll tell you that.”) and admitted he’s got to harness that aggressive mindset.

But maybe now the narrative about Brown will begin to shift again. Before, it was easy to get hung up on his on/off splits. For much of the season, Brown has been the only regular to linger in the negative for on-court net rating (he’s still at minus-1.0 overall through 558 minutes of floor time). And Boston’s net rating is a team-best plus-9.9 when he’s off the court. 

Remember that much of Brown’s floor time early in the season came with a first unit that inexplicably sputtered (even Brad Stevens lingered on the lineup in hopes it would figure itself out). Brown's splits when sharing the floor with Gordon Hayward were a particular concern but returns from Thursday’s game suggest the duo can coexist in bench lineups just fine (the duo owned a net rating of plus-18.4 in 17 minutes together against the Knicks).

Heck, Brown’s night left Kyrie Irving daydreaming of how good the bench can be.

“That second unit still has to develop their chemistry as well as they get Jaylen into that second unit, and I think they’ll look great,” said Irving. "We probably have one of the most talented second units in the league, if not the best talent, so now we just all put it together and put in a full 48-minute game."

Brown is well aware of how much chatter there was about how he’d reintegrate on Thursday. But he seemingly took it as a challenge, embraced the aggression that produces his best basketball, and helped the Celtics keep their good vibes rolling.

Now the challenge is to build off it.

"It’s not a one-day or two-day thing. It’s going to be all year,” said Brown. "I’ll keep it up, keep playing, see how things fall in place.”

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Celtics hopeful Gordon Hayward can rejoin team in Charlotte

Celtics hopeful Gordon Hayward can rejoin team in Charlotte

PHILADELPHIA — Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, sidelined while navigating the NBA’s concussion protocol, went through a treadmill workout Tuesday and appears to have responded well, leaving the Celtics hopeful he will be able to rejoin the team in time for Saturday’s game in Charlotte against the Hornets.

"He did a pretty lengthy workout on the treadmill [Tuesday], so that was a good sign,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday at Boston’s morning shootaround in Philadelphia. "The way it works, then you go 24 hours and get reassessed. Every indication is that he felt OK today. 

"But he will go to the doctor in Boston today. If he’s cleared to go, he’ll go through the next steps and keep on going. We’ll see. Our hope is that he joins us in Charlotte.”

Hayward absorbed a hard blow to the face running into a screen by Atlanta’s John Collins on Saturday. The team initially announced the injury as a neck strain but Hayward entered the league’s concussion protocol soon after. 

Hayward will miss his second game with Wednesday’s visit to the Sixers. The concussion is the latest minor setback for Hayward, who has endured a couple of injuries just as he seems to be building some momentum this season.

“[The injuries are] unique to his career because he’s missed very few games coming into his time [in Boston],” said Stevens. "But you never rush him back from this. It has to be cleared through the league. There’s a reason we have the protocols, and I’m glad we do. But it’s not a ton of games as it stands now. 

"He’s got plenty of time to regain that rhythm, assuming he can play soon.”

The Celtics have played some of their best basketball of the season on the nights that Hayward performs best and it seems imperative he plays at a high level if the team is going to have success in the postseason.

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Escape route: Celtics' Marcus Morris and Brad Wanamaker escape mean streets of Philly in getting to NBA

Escape route: Celtics' Marcus Morris and Brad Wanamaker escape mean streets of Philly in getting to NBA

When it comes to speaking the truth, Marcus Morris is about as straight-no-chaser as they come. 

So as Boston gears up to face his hometown Philadelphia 76ers tonight, it’s an ideal time to reflect upon how far the North Philly native has come from THE humble surroundings that could have easily derailed his promising basketball career, as it did so many young men he grew up with at that time. 

“I have a lot of friends that did time in jail at a young age; 17, 18 years old and did five, six years and came home as a grown up,” Morris told NBC Sports Boston.

Those times have helped shape Morris’ outlook on life both on and off the court, forging a level of mental toughness in him that has allowed him to easily shrug off rough basketball nights while not getting too elated over good ones. 

“Basketball has been amazing,” Morris said. “Basketball gave me a platform to go back to the youth and show that it’s possible; it’s possible.”


He’s hoping those amazing times will only get better with the Celtics looking to close out the regular season strong.

Tonight's game would indeed be another step in that direction as they attempt to sweep the season series from Philadelphia for the third time in the last four years.

While such dominance makes talk of a rivalry difficult to palate, Boston guard Brad Wanamaker knows it's always special whenever these two Eastern Conference foes hook up. 

Like Morris, Wanamaker is also from North Philly.  And like Morris, basketball became his escape from troubled surroundings as well. 

Crime. Drugs. Violence. Wanamaker had seen it all at a young age.

“My family . . . they were heavy in the drug game,” Wanamaker told NBC Sports Boston.


But that all changed courtesy of his older brother, James Samuel. 

“My older brother was the first one that I really saw that had a job; like a 9-5 job. That was like a positive in my life. My twin brother (Brian) and my sisters (Crystal and Latisha),  we used him as our role model in a way that . . . we don’t have to go down that other path.”

For Wanamaker, the path towards success involved playing basketball. 

After a standout career at Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School, Wanamaker went on to the University of Pittsburgh, where he established himself as one of the Big East's top players along with being an honorable mention All-American. 

But the NBA wasn't sold on his talent and he went undrafted in 2011. 

He would eventually take his talents overseas where he found tremendous success, racking up championships and MVP honors in the process. 


Still clinging to his dream of playing in the NBA, the 29-year-old Wanamaker spoke about how those tough times as a youth, the prospect of not being drafted and now being on an NBA roster but playing sparingly, has tested his mental resolve in ways he would have never dreamed of before. 

“It’s the toughest [expletive] I’ve had to deal with in my life,” Wanamaker, referring to not playing much for the Celtics, told NBC Sports Boston. “Basketball is my escape from everything.”

This season, Wanamaker has appeared in 30 games for Boston, averaging 3.4 points and 1.3 assists while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 50 percent on 3's in 8.7 minutes per game. 

However, having seen and lived through some of the many challenges that kids who grow up in North Philly endure, Wanamaker isn’t tripping at all about not playing more. 

“I’ve seen a lot worse than not playing in a basketball game,” he said. 

And whenever he’s feeling down about his lack of playing time, Morris is often the first to cheer him up or, at a minimum, reminisce about their days playing together on the same AAU team.

Back then, they were playing to win for their team and showcase what they could do as players. These days, both acknowledge that they play the game for something bigger than their own personal agenda.

"There's so few of us in the NBA from Philadelphia, every time I step on the floor I gotta represent," Morris said in a separate interview with NBC Sports Boston.

Wanamaker echoed a similar sentiment.

“Not only am I playing for myself, but I’m playing for my family back home,” Wanamaker said. “My family back home and a lot of my homies who picked up the game and didn’t make it this far. I always tell people all the time, it’s bigger than me. I put the work in day-in, day out, to try and keep working to get out on the court. But I’m doing this for more than just me; I never forget that, never.”

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