Celtics report card: Jaylen Brown showcasing summer improvements
Overshadowed by Gordon Hayward’s freak hand fracture on Saturday night, the Boston Celtics stormed into a venue they’ve routinely gotten stomped in and produced a lopsided double-digit victory that capped a 3-0 road trip.
Yes, you can quibble with the strength of schedule thus far — ESPN’s Basketball Power Index suggests the Celtics have played the fifth easiest schedule — and Boston’s three wins this week came over teams with a combined record of 12-14.
Still, the end of the trip was particularly encouraging, especially how Boston responded after the loss of Hayward. Everyone on the roster must pick up their play a little bit moving forward in order to replace all that Hayward has done to help Boston get to 7-1.
Let’s break out our red pens and assign Week 3 grades:
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Jaylen Brown (A-)
Brown missed three games while battling illness and infection but shook the rust real quick. After a solid return against Charlotte in which he was ultra-aggressive attacking the basket, Brown declared that he was eager to show the NBA world all of the advances he’s made this summer. Two days later in San Antonio — with Team USA coach Gregg Popovich watching from the opposite sideline — Brown erupted for 30 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including getting to the free-throw line 10 times.
It’s more than the loud stat line, it’s the new items in Brown’s toolbox that really make you take note of his play. Brown, as much as anyone, has an opportunity to further assert himself in Hayward’s absence.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Javonte Green (B+)
It seems absurd now that the 26-year-old Green wasn’t on an NBA roster before this season. Or that he had to fight for Boston’s 15th spot in camp. Coach Brad Stevens confidently deployed the springy Green for 31 minutes this week and Boston put up an offensive rating of 125 in that span (second-best number on the team behind only Williams at an absurd 133.6 in 50 minutes).
Green’s athleticism seemingly makes him a dunk threat any time he catches the ball with space. All eight of his makes have come near the rim, where he’s shooting 72.7 percent overall. Improving his 3-point shot, though, is key to his long-term playing time, especially with Hayward’s injury potentially creating more opportunities for Green.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Robert Williams (B)
Consistency remains the issue with Williams but, in a week with far more good than bad, he might have produced his best game of his NBA career while putting up 11 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting with seven rebounds and six blocks in San Antonio. The Celtics would love to bottle up this Williams, the one who spent six matchup minutes defending either Jakob Poeltl or LaMarcus Aldridge and held them scoreless (blocking both shot attempts by Poeltl against him). Watching Williams throw down lobs or produce volleyball blocks is fun but defensive consistency remains the key to unlocking bigger minutes.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Daniel Theis (B)
The Celtics posted a stingy defensive rating of 88.5 over Theis' 73 minutes of floor time this week. What’s more, with Theis in the starting role, Boston rebounded the ball well and the 6-foot-8 German turned into an unexpected block machine with eight swats over three games. Yes, Tristan Thompson took advantage of Theis at times, but Theis held LaMarcus Aldridge scoreless over 20.1 possessions and nearly five minutes of matchup time. Theis’ steady play has been particularly important with Enes Kanter still unable to get back on the floor.
Semi Ojeleye (C-)
Ever since his solid defensive efforts in the win over the Bucks, Ojeleye’s playing time has been trending downward. On Saturday, he logged only 2 minutes against the Spurs (and 14 minutes overall this week). Hayward’s injury could create more opportunities but Ojeleye has to do more on the court. His total production this week: 0 points, 1 shot, 1 rebound, 2 fouls. The Celtics had a team-worst net rating of minus-9.9 in his floor time.
Vincent Poirier (C)
Even with Kanter sidelined, Poirier has struggled to get consistent time. Against Charlotte, he had three misses near the rim, sometimes seemingly pump-faking his way out of opportunities. Some of it was bad luck — one layup attempt impossibly kicked off both sides of the rim and back out — but Poirier also looks like he’s still figuring things out on both ends of the court. Kanter’s eventual return could make it tougher to find minutes and maybe some time in Maine might help Poirier learn the system with increased reps.
Hayward was cruising towards a spot at the head of the class until he got blindsided by an Aldridge (illegal) screen and fractured a bone in his left hand. Hayward erupted for 39 points in Cleveland — the scene of his ankle crime — on uber-efficient 17-of-20 shooting, then followed it up with a 20/10 night in Charlotte. Hayward was plus-15 in 15 minutes before his injury in San Antonio. You can’t help but feel for him as he was just starting to re-establish himself as an All-Star-level player some 25 months after his ankle injury. The question becomes can he pick up where he left off once the finger is healed?
The Celtics have climbed to fourth in the NBA in offensive rating while averaging 110.4 points per 100 possessions. In three games last week, that number was up at 116. The Celtics continue to take really good care of the basketball, their turnover percentage at a league-best 11.5 percent, or nearly 4 percent below the league average. What’s more, Boston has had balanced offensive output with three players averaging 20+ points per game before Hayward’s injury. Brown could be there soon as he’s averaging 18.8 per game. Boston still has room for growth, particularly while ranking tied for 18th in field goal percentage (44.8) this season.
Boston is up to fifth in the NBA in defensive rating while allowing 101.1 points per 100 possessions. Opponents are shooting just 41.7 percent against the Celtics this season — a top-5 mark — and that number was at 40 percent in the three games last week. What’s more, Boston ranks in the top 10 in blocks (3rd) and steals (8th). Boston isn’t shooting itself in the foot with turnovers and that’s helped drive down the transition and fastbreak points that last year’s team got gouged on.
Stevens picked up his first win in San Antonio and he’s now won in every city in the NBA during his career. He continues to press the right buttons, particularly while navigating with injuries. Boston hasn’t had its full roster since opening night and won’t for the foreseeable future with Hayward’s fracture. Everything Stevens has thrown out works, like deploying Marcus Smart as primary defender on Kevin Love in Cleveland. Stevens’ best teams have made the most out of what they had and this team seems to be no different.
The Celtics seem to be treading especially carefully with Kanter, who has been out 18 days with the knee bruised he suffered — then played through — on opening night in Philadelphia. Kanter seems eager to play again.
After recovering from a knee sprain, rookie Romeo Langford got sent to the G-League for reps but could see some minutes with the parent club with Hayward out.
WEEK 3 SUMMARY
Boston players dubbed this week’s travels a business trip and the team was notably productive even with potential distractions like Kemba Walker’s return home or Hayward’s injury. Yes, the quality of opponent wasn’t great and it’s hard to have a super firm gauge on where Boston sits in the hierarchy. But 7-1 is 7-1, and 3-0 is 3-0 on the road. Throttling San Antonio the way they did was simply jarring when considering how poorly they’ve typically played there. The Hayward injury tempered the week but still a solid three-win performance with plenty of room for improvement.