Jayson Tatum’s banked 3-point winner will be replayed a thousand times over the next 24 hours, but the real play of the game in the Boston Celtics’ season-opening win over the Milwaukee Bucks might have been a fairly unremarkable free throw in the second quarter.
With 4:54 to play in the first half and Boston trailing by 4, the Bucks’ Bobby Portis got whistled for illegal defense. Jaylen Brown beelined to the free throw line and made the technical foul free throw.
That Brown was the one to step to the line in that situation is notable on its own. Consider last year’s free-throw percentages for all five of Boston’s players on the court in that moment:
|ON THE COURT||FT PCT. LAST SEASON|
OK, so Thompson wasn’t going to take it. But Teague, who was already a 3-point flamethrower at that point, was an obvious choice to head to the stripe. He even seemed to be looking in that direction but Brown moved with such purpose that no one seemed fazed.
But here’s why it’s notable. Brown, who had already labored through poor shooting during the preseason, was 2 of 9 shooting with only 4 points to that point. There’s a longstanding theory that sometimes all it takes is seeing the ball go through the basket for a player to start feeling good about themselves.
And that sure seemed to be the case with Brown.
Brown scored 10 of his 15 first-half points over the final 2:30 of the second quarter. He made 11 of his final 15 shots overall, including a cluster of mid-range jumpers after the Bucks were erasing a 17-point deficit to make things tight in the final minutes.
Brown finished with a team-high 33 points on 13 of 24 shooting over 37 minutes, 38 seconds of floor time. He added five rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block in Boston’s 122-121 triumph at TD Garden.
Maybe even more notable, on a night that his usage percentage spiked to 28.4 (he was at 24.5 last season), Brown didn’t commit a single turnover despite the amount of time the ball was in his hands.
Maybe we’ve just come to expect Tatum to make the big shot like he did and he helped Boston build a big third-quarter cushion by catching fire for a bit. But the Celtics don’t win this game without Brown turning the momentum.
Ten of Brown’s 13 makes came outside of 9 feet. In the fourth quarter, he routinely came off side pick-and-rolls, got near the elbow, and pulled up in space against Milwaukee’s sunk defense.
Asked about having the ball in his hands more on those pick-and-rolls, Brown responded: “Comfortable. Just fine. It’s a new year, new season, new responsibilities, so I’m just trying to accept that challenge. And I’m looking forward to this year.”
Brown’s biggest bucket of the night came with Milwaukee up 2 with under 2 minutes to play. The Bucks switched a pick-and-roll on the side with Giannis Antetokounmpo jumping out to defend. Brown immediately darted baseline, hung in the air as Jrue Holiday flew by, and laid the ball in to tie the game. Tatum took care of the rest.
“Hell of a shot. Big-time shot,” said Brown. "Those are the type of shots that we trust JT with, that he looks forward to. I don’t know if he called glass, but I’ll take it.”
Brown shot less than 70 percent at the charity stripe for the first three years of his career. He’s not the No. 1 guy you want at the line in a key situation. But on this night, it might have been a free-throw that swung the balance of the game.
And we’re not talking about the one Antetokounmpo missed at the finish line. It was Brown’s second-quarter make that changed the night.