Celtics

Jaylen Brown's relentless drive to prove himself with Celtics, Team USA

Jaylen Brown's relentless drive to prove himself with Celtics, Team USA

Team USA owned an absurd 58-point lead when Jaylen Brown caught a pass in transition near the midcourt stripe following a Japan turnover in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s group play at the FIBA championships. It would have been understandable if he immediately downshifted and took the ball into the corner to burn off some clock.

But that’s not how Brown operates.

Despite the three black jerseys in his vicinity, including one trying to deter his path to the basket, Brown took two hard dribbles then exploded off the right blocks. A Japan defender leaped with him but, quickly accepting his fate, simply ducked his head to avoid fouling while Brown delivered an emphatic one-handed dunk. Brown's American teammates sprang off the bench and flexed in celebration.

It would be a bit of fool’s gold to make too much of Brown’s loud performance against a clearly overmatched Japan. He scored a team-high 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and a couple steals over 22 minutes, 36 seconds of floor time.

Brown’s biggest highlight might have been unleashing a windmill dunk after streaking in alone following a steal in the first half and he earned a shiny sponsored baton after being named the Player of the Game.

But when asked for his view on Thursday’s lopsided win, Brown didn’t linger on his accomplishments.

"I think we have a lot of room for improvement,” said Brown. 

That poster-dunk sequence and Brown’s postgame comments essentially confirm what we’ve long known about Brown: He’s never quite satisfied and always yearns for more. That attitude, that drive, that unrelenting style of play should excite Celtics fans far more than any dunk or point total. Brown so clearly yearns to show the rest of the NBA world what he can accomplish and won’t allow himself to throttle down in that quest.

An NBA photographer got a snapshot of Brown running onto the court with the message, “Time to show the world you’ve got game,” plastered in block letters on the tunnel wall. Brown later posted it to his Instagram account. With two Celtics teammates sidelined by injury (Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart), Brown did just that.

Brown had a couple quiet games to start group play, though he played with a noticeable defensive intensity in Team USA’s tournament-opening win over the Czech Republic. Against Japan, he beefed up his stat line a bit. The bigger question is whether he can use the momentum gained Thursday to propel him as Team USA enters second-round play.

Greece awaits Saturday and a chance to joust yet again with NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the man who helped end Boston’s season last year. Brown isn’t likely to be any more deterred from attacking the basket with the Greek Freak in the paint. A snapshot of Brown dunking over Antetokounmpo went viral during the playoffs last season and, even as Brown braced for a response, he caught Antetokounmpo with another dunk soon after.

Japan was a glorified exhibition with Team USA’s spot in Round 2 secured. The competition level wasn’t close to what they’d previously seen versus Czech Republic and Turkey. But the games from here on out will challenge them and, especially with Tatum sidelined, there’s an opportunity for Brown to assert himself.

Brown’s situation has been well-chronicled this summer. He’s extension eligible before opening night and, with many of the top 2020 free agents having already inked extensions, Brown could be one of the glitzier names available next summer. He’s positioned himself for a big payday and the Celtics must determine if they want to make him a bountiful offer or wait for Brown to prove he’s capable of playing to that price tag this season. 

Brown will be a restricted free agent next summer, giving the Celtics the ability to match any offer he receives.

For now, Brown is eager to remind the rest of the NBA that last season wasn’t a true glimpse at his potential. The message on the wall inside the arena clearly resonates with him and he’s not about to downshift — regardless of the situation.

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What to make of the Celtics amid their midseason tailspin

What to make of the Celtics amid their midseason tailspin

MILWAUKEE — The Boston Celtics will arrive at the midway point of the 2019-20 season this weekend trying to pull themselves out of a tailspin that’s seen them drop five of their last seven games, including a pair of Eastern Conference showdowns with chief rivals Philadelphia and Milwaukee a week apart.

The Celtics have vacillated somewhere between enjoyable overachiever capable of pushing the East’s best to a maddening squad with fatal flaws that might prevent it from truly emerging in the conference. Sometimes they look like both in the same night.

Like on Thursday in Milwaukee when Boston dug itself a 27-point hole as the NBA-leading Bucks hit an absurd barrage of first-half 3-pointers. Just when it seemed fair to suggest that Boston’s early season success might have been the product on feasting on inferior competition, a Jaylen Brown-less Boston squad jumped on Kemba Walker’s back and nearly roared all the way back.

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As coach Brad Stevens likes to remind his team, you’re never as good as you think you are, you’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never far from either. The Celtics’ inability to field a fully healthy roster has clouded their overall potential and we’re left making bold proclamations off small samples of good and bad play.

Are the Celtics true contenders? Maybe, but the past couple weeks hasn’t helped their case. Boston is now 7-8 against teams over .500 and only two of those wins came on the road (both when an opponent was missing a key player). They whiffed with a chance to pounce on an Embiid-less Philly last week and then couldn’t capitalize on Giannis-less minutes after getting within single digits in the second half on Thursday night.

Do the Celtics need to make a move? Maybe, but it’d be a lot easier to judge if we could ever see all their puzzle pieces together. Boston’s bench play has been woeful at times and, for all the consternation about their lack of pure size, it sure feels like shooting is what they should be targeting. And yet it’s fair to wonder, if Brown plays on Thursday, and Marcus Smart shifts to his typical bench role, then maybe the bench production doesn’t look as meager.

Ultimately, bench pieces aren’t going to tip this thing one way or another. The Celtics are going to go as far as their five best players can carry them, as Stevens made clear after Thursday’s loss.

"We’re going to ride our best five, as we’ve talked about quite a bit, and then we just need everybody else to play a role around them,” said Stevens. "But we need those five to be awfully good.”

On this night, Walker was exceptional. On the same night that Kyrie Irving delivered one of his patented rants about roster flaws in Brooklyn, Walker challenged himself to be better after a disheartening loss to the Pistons. He responded with a 40-point, 11-rebound outburst in Milwaukee. As Stevens abridged, "Only reason we had a chance.”

The coach added, “It's not [Walker’s] responsibility to be responsible for everybody else’s energy but I’m glad that he accepts it. I’m glad that he wants that. He certainly brought it tonight. He was awfully special tonight.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Gordon Hayward, who has been on a bit of a roller coaster since returning from nerve pain in his foot on Christmas Day. Hayward missed nine of the 10 shots he took — including eight 3-pointers — while finishing with 7 points over 32:15.

“I thought we had some good looks, especially personally, I had some good looks. But we just didn’t make them,” said Hayward. “Have to be better next time.”

But that only accentuates Boston’s rather thin margin for error against the elite (and maybe the not-so elite, too). The team had been undefeated this season when playing without Brown but they really missed him on Thursday. The Celtics don’t have the sort of top-end talent that can win a game individually (though Walker sure as hell tried on Thursday).

A February 6 trade deadline looms. It’s hard to imagine the Celtics making a big-splash move but adding a bench piece — if for no other reason than the run of injuries this team continues to endure — remains something the team must consider. Maybe that’s using picks to help fetch a shooter, or maybe it’s just thumbing through the scrap heap for someone who can be a more steady eighth or ninth man. The youngsters on this team have had their moments but they’re also being asked to do a lot at young ages.

It was telling, though, Thursday when Boston cut its deficit to 8 and Antetokounmpo headed to the bench with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter. Boston should have capitalized but its sub lineups floundered and Milwaukee pushed its lead back up to 20 before Antetokounmpo returned at the end of the quarter. A second Boston run came up just short at the end of the game.

Stevens glowed about how the second half looked more like “Celtics basketball.” Smart insisted the team wouldn’t overreact to this rough patch.

"It’s the NBA. You can’t get discouraged off that,” said Smart. "We’ve played two back-to-back nights and stuff like that. You can’t let that discourage you. That’s part of it. We’re at the 40-game mark. It happens.”

Maybe he’s right. Still, watching this team on a daily basis, we yearn for a glimpse of this team when whole. But who knows if it’ll ever happen. Robert Williams could be a nice jolt for the center rotation if he’s able to come back after the All-Star break but that’s unlikely to alter the path of this team much.

No, the success of this team more likely hinges on Smart, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Walker.

“I think we’re still pretty good,” said Hayward. "I don’t think the team is down or anything like that. I think we realize we’ve got work to do and we get right back to it.”

The quest to figure out exactly what these Celtics are continues. They’re not as good as we though they were, they’re not as bad as some will make it seem now. But they’re never quite far from either.

Celtics-Bucks Overreactions: Are C's unable to contend with beasts of the East?

Celtics-Bucks Overreactions: Are C's unable to contend with beasts of the East?

The Boston Celtics now have lost five of their last seven games as they fell to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night, 128-123.

Kemba Walker (40 points) stepped up big-time with Jaylen Brown out due to a thumb injury, but he could only take the C's so far. Marcus Smart, who replaced Brown in the starting lineup, contributed 24 points of his own.

Here are three instant overreactions from the C's loss, which brings them to 27-13 on the year.

1. The Celtics can't contend with the beasts in the East.

Verdict: Overreaction

To say the C's looked sluggish on the second night of their back-to-back vs. the NBA's best team would be an understatement.

Outside of Walker and Smart, the offense couldn't get anything going until the fourth quarter when it was too late. Defensively, it was more of the same.

This loss, combined with the C's 0-3 record against the Philadelphia 76ers this year, isn't going to inspire much confidence in their ability to go toe-to-toe with the beasts of the Eastern Conference. But it's far too premature to declare Boston wouldn't be able to compete with them in a seven-game series.

The Celtics did manage to beat the Bucks in Boston earlier in the season. They just happened to meet up again during a time in which the C's are going through their biggest slump of the year and most grueling part in their schedule while dealing with injuries to key players.

Long story short, do not make the mistake of counting this team out in January.

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2. Celtics defense has some serious issues to work out.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Defending the 3-ball has been a real problem for Boston all season long, and it was glaring again in Thursday's loss.

The Bucks shot the lights out through the first three quarters before scuffling in the fourth. They finished with a 51.6 shooting percentage beyond the arc and 49.4 percentage altogether. The Celtics let Donte DiVenchezno go 6-for-11 from the field and 4-of-6 from 3.

Needless to say, there's plenty for this struggling defense to clean up.

3. C's need a bench scorer, not a center.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

The Celtics needed much more from their bench throughout the contest.

Enes Kanter has been the spark off the bench all season long and tallied nine points on Thursday night, but other than his contributions and Semi Ojeleye's two 3-pointers, this was an area of concern.

If you're going to beg Boston to make a deal before the Feb. 6 trade deadline, it should be for a consistent bench scorer. Not Andre Drummond or another big man. This is an adequate rebounding team, but down the road, a lack of scoring depth could come back to bite them.

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