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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