If you want to watch the biggest moment of Game 1 between the Celtics and Sixers, cue up the start of the fourth quarter.
Boston had gone more than five minutes without a basket, missed seven straight shots, and watched a nine-point lead morph into a six-point deficit. And here the Celtics were fumbling their way through another disjointed possession.
Then Jaylen Brown decided to take over — the possession and the game.
Brown, mind you, had spent the majority of the third quarter looking like a Peloton instructor on the Boston sideline, trying to loosen a right thigh that a 7-foot, 280-pound locomotive named Embiid had battered into on a drive.
But with his team in desperate need of a basket and the shot clock down to single digits, Brown studied the rest of his glued-to-the-floor teammates and called his own number.
With a shoulder fake, he got old friend Al Horford stumbling backwards in fear of a drive. When Enes Kanter shuffled over looking like he was going to set a screen, Horford started leaning that way and it was enough for Brown to take one dribble, step back beyond the 3-point arc, and splash a 28-footer with Horford’s hand in his face.
Brown scored 15 of his 29 points in that final frame, singlehandedly carrying Boston for about a four-minute stretch as the Celtics rebuilt their own lead and fended off the Sixers for a 109-101 triumph.
We are as guilty as anyone of suggesting Brown is a “third option” on a team where defenses must put a heavy emphasis on Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. Fortunately for the Celtics, Brown operates like the No. 1 option when he has to.
What’s becoming clear is that Brown will soon be an All-Star in this league and the playoff stage continues to bring out his best basketball.
Brown is still only 23 years old and every time someone attempts to put a ceiling on his potential, he launches the roof skyward. While all of us talking heads spend our days pondering Tatum’s slot in the NBA hierarchy, it’s Brown who keeps putting on his hard hat and reminding us all that Boston is moving forward with two young superstars.
Now, as the Celtics brace themselves for the possibility of playing without Gordon Hayward, who sprained his right ankle landing awkwardly on a teammates’ foot in the fourth quarter, Brown becomes even more vital to what the team accomplishes this year.
If the fourth quarter is any indication, the Celtics should feel good about their ability to weather any Hayward absence.
A short time after his drought-snapping 3, Brown attacked with Horford again defending and muscled home a righthanded floater to make it a one-possession game. With 8:35 to play, Kanter corralled a spectacular offensive rebound over Embiid and flung the ball back out to Brown, in the same spot as his first triple of the frame, and Brown splashed a wide-open look to tie the game at 86.
Brown was unrelenting. He pulled out his degree from the Marcus Smart school of foul embellishment to help procure a flagrant-1 against Horford that led to four consecutive free throw makes by Brown.
He capped his scoring output with yet another 3-pointer from the left wing, this time a transition look, as Boston gave itself some much-needed breathing room.
Brown’s final fourth-quarter line: 15 points, 4-of-5 shooting overall, 3 of 3 on 3-pointers, plus-12 while playing the entire frame.
"A couple of Jaylen’s 3s were enormous for us,” said coach Brad Stevens. "Down 5 or 6, we gave up a couple of layups and bad defensive plays that could have really hurt us, can turn the tide the other way, but Jaylen’s 3s, his drives, transition, getting fouled, he just did a lot of good things. As usual.”
s usual. Which is why we probably have to stop being so surprised whenever Brown has these sort of big nights. This is a player who’s already got 45 games of playoff experience under his belt, who nearly willed an injury-battered Celtics squad to the NBA Finals (alongside Tatum) as a 21-year-old two seasons ago.
It’s just that Brown keeps adding new elements to his game. When Horford was here, that one-dribble step back wasn’t part of the toolbox. Now it is. And it produced the biggest basket of Game 1.
Brown downshifted a bit at the end of Boston’s seeding games but, before that, he was quite clearly the team’s best player for much of the early portion of their bubble stay. Walker’s knee and Tatum’s ascension tend to dominate the headlines, but Brown’s play might ultimately dictate just how far this team goes.
He seems eager to showcase his abilities. He’s eager to fight for everyone to take notice of the player he is becoming.
"We’ve just got to fight. That’s what it comes down to,” said Brown. "Who wants it the most? Who wants to fight? [In Game 1], we came out and we battled. We were the more physical team and we came out on top. I was proud of us. We’ve got to keep that fight up if we want to win this series.”