BOSTON — The story of Jaylen Brown’s NBA career is always seemingly intertwined a bit with Jimmy Butler.
You know the backstory by now: Celtics fans booed when Boston used the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft on Brown instead of dealing it for a more established veteran such as Butler. The two players shared a trainer a few years back and they held summer workouts together in Mexico. Brown yearned to extract all he could while working with the ultra-competitive Butler.
So, it seemed particularly noteworthy watching Brown cap his 31-point outburst Wednesday night at the expense of Butler. After Brown’s 15-point third-quarter explosion helped Boston separate a bit, it was Brown twice shaking Butler and hitting a pair of long jumpers over his old pal — including one lucky 27-foot banked 3-pointer — as the Celtics finished off a 112-93 triumph over Butler’s Heat at TD Garden.
Butler had a big night of his own, singlehandedly trying to keep Miami afloat while playing the second night of a back-to-back after a spirited overtime win in Toronto on Tuesday. He was sensational while putting up a game-high 37 points on 12-of-18 shooting in 37 minutes.
But the student more than held his own with the teacher. Brown shrugged off a quiet first half to score 22 second-half points. His loud third-quarter culminated with back-to-back 3-pointers in front of the Miami bench and Brown playfully suggested afterward that he blew a kiss to former teammate Kelly Olynyk after the second triple.
All those Celtics fans that grumbled when Brown was drafted are blowing kisses his way now. All those that groaned when he inked a four-year, $115 million extension in October are professing their love for the deal.
Brown nearly matched his career highs for both the regular season (32 points) and postseason scoring (34) on Wednesday night. It feels like he’ll eclipse both soon. Brown is averaging 19.9 points per game while shooting 49.4 percent from the field, 38.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc, and a career-best 71.8 percent at the free-throw line. Add in career-highs at 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.
It all looks very similar to what Butler is doing in Miami, where he is averaging 20.1 points, 6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.4 steals per game.
Brown has undoubtedly heard his detractors and still finds motivation in them. While being playfully peppered about his kiss blowing, he was asked about similar incidents in the past.
"I guess when people like to say I’m a non-shooter and then I make it, that’s my gift to them,” said Brown.
When the Heat blitzed Kemba Walker after his early scoring exploits, it often left Boston shooters open when the Celtics swung the ball across the court. Brown feasted on open looks but sometimes it didn’t matter if he was blanketed. On the first of his two consecutive late-third-quarter 3s, Brown was being smothered in the corner by Justise Winslow (the 2015 draft desire that Boston could not pry away from the Frank Kaminsky-craving Hornets). Even after the Heat had cut their deficit to single digits in that third quarter, Brown calmly squared up to the basket, moved the ball around to create a tiny bit of space, then pulled up over Winslow’s outstretched arm for a triple.
He gazed briefly at the Miami bench but saved his air-peck for the next trip down when he made another corner 3 (this time an open look as Olynyk scrambled out). It might as well have been a curtain call on a night where Brown took center stage in the second half.
"When [Brown] has it going, he definitely gives us a lot more options,” said Walker. "He’s been playing well all year. I’m excited for him. He’s put in a lot of work each and every day, and it’s showing on the court.”
It’s not just the big scoring night but how Brown did it. He hit a lot of jump shots but also had instances where he bullied his way to the basket against quality defenders such as Bam Adebayo and muscled home tough finishes around the basket. Brown also got to the line a team-high eight times, accounting for a quarter of Boston’s total free-throw attempts.
At a time when Boston’s offense has slumped while Gordon Hayward rehabs a broken hand, Brown has tried to pick up some slack. In the 12 games without Hayward, Brown is averaging 20.4 points while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s adding 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game.
With the win, the Celtics took down another of their primary East rivals and shuffled into a second-place tie with Toronto. Milwaukee is three games ahead but Boston is one of their three defeats this season. With 20 games and nearly a quarter of the season in the rearview, the Celtics own a .750 winning percentage. That’s a 61.5-win pace though the level of competition ahead should reel that win total in a bit.
For now, Boston is 8-0 at home and has typically won the games it should this season. They didn’t look particularly crisp early but a bench effort led by Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams helped crank the defensive intensity and Brown elevated his play as the Celtics surged ahead.
It’s fair to wonder how it’ll all look when Hayward is healthy enough to come back and it appears he’s trending towards a December return while already resuming a bit of contact activity this week. Can a Walker/Tatum/Brown/Hayward quartet find enough shots for one another?
If everyone buys into looking for the best shot and exploiting the biggest mismatches, there should be. Brown is feasting when teams put their energy into slowing Walker and Jayson Tatum. Hayward’s return will really force teams to pick their poison.
Brown is making teams account for him. The only thing clogging his path to All-Star consideration is Boston’s depth. Still, the strides Brown made this summer have forced the rest of the league to take notice of how far he’s advanced.
He’s come a long way since fans booed the pick. He’s come a long way since working out with Butler. The best part for Boston fans is that there’s still a lot of room for growth. And a lot more kisses to be blown in his direction.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.