This reporter was filling his gas tank on the way into our NBC Sports Boston studios Wednesday afternoon when a fellow patron bellowed over, “They’re not going to trade Jaylen Brown for James Harden, right?”
I’m not even sure if the guy knew I was a basketball reporter. There is a chance that he was simply asking every person he encountered at the pump the same question. We reasoned that, with Brown stating a strong case for Boston’s best player through the first four games of the season, we were confident they wouldn’t be moving him any time soon.
Then Brown erupted for a career-high 42 points on 15-of-21 shooting in under 29 minutes during a 126-107 thrashing of a shorthanded Memphis Grizzlies squad at TD Garden. And now we feel a bit more confident in our gas station declaration.
Brown was spectacular Wednesday and the ball seemed doused in gasoline when it was in his hands. He made 7 of 10 3-point attempts. He had a trio of mid-range jumpers that are slowly becoming a bit of a signature shot.
But here’s the part we liked best: With the Celtics up by 24 with two minutes to play in the third quarter, Brown wasn’t hunting for a career high in scoring. With hands raised, he knocked down a Memphis entry pass and collected a steal. After two quick dribbles, Brown split two defenders with a beautiful baseball-style bounce pass to a streaking Jayson Tatum for an easy layup.
It wasn’t until he got clued in by teammates that he decided to make a late burst for 40.
"At first, I had no idea, I was just playing,” said Brown. "Towards the end of the third quarter … they were telling me, 'Dang, you are right at your career-high with 34 points.' I gave Brad a little wink and said, 'Can I get 2 more minutes?' He let me go back out there.
"With that type of responsibility that Brad gave me, I still wanted to make sure I played basketball the right way. It just happened to fall and stuff happened the way it did. Just tried to handle everything responsibly."
Brown filled out his stat line with five rebounds, four assists, and that steal. He was plus-22 in his 28 minutes, 57 seconds of floor time. He spent the fourth quarter leaning on a padded table next to the Celtics bench and cheering emphatically for the team’s younger players (well, younger is relative when you consider Brown is a mere 24 years, 67 days old).
But back to that gas station exchange. When the Celtics were stumbling out of the gates, and especially after getting rocked on Christmas Day, our social media mentions were full of messages suggesting the Celtics needed to trade for Harden.
We’re not saying those suggestions are completely baseless; MVP-caliber players don’t hit the trade market often and they don’t always express a public willingness to join your team.
But when juxtapose Brown’s relentless desire to improve with Harden’s relentless desire to distribute honeybuns at Lil Baby concerts, it makes us wonder why some fans would be willing to sacrifice the long-term potential for a short-term swing at a title.
So here’s hoping that 2021 is filled with less Trade Machine proposals that have Brown as a centerpiece. The Celtics can still make a big-splash move this season by utilizing the Gordon Hayward trade exception, and they’ll get an All-Star back eventually in Kemba Walker.
For now, maybe just savor the Jaylen Brown experience.
Five games into the 2020-21 season, Brown is averaging 28 points over 33 minutes per game. He’s shooting 56.3 percent overall and 44.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s added 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.8 steals per game.
Brown’s usage rate has spiked to 29.6 percent — up from 24.5 a year ago — and yet his turnover ratio has plummeted to a career low and his assist rate has more than doubled from a year ago (jumping from 9.5 percent to 19.3 percent). Brown has the ball in his hands more, he’s creating better for his teammates, and he’s improved to the point where he can pull up in the midrange and you just expect the ball is going in.
"Super happy for him, big night. He was on fire,” said Tatum, who embraces Brown’s progress as the duo continue to push each other. "If a guy's hitting like that, it means you've got to keep feeding him.
"I think he's become a better shooter each and every year. His confidence continues to grow, and he's just gotten better each and every year. Obviously he's going to continue to get better.”
The Celtics heaped a whole bunch on Brown’s plate this year and he just keeps asking for more.
"I'm definitely trying to accept the challenge and I'm excited about this year in general for our group,” said Brown. "I think we still have a great group. We have a lot to learn, I have a lot to learn but I think we are all embracing that challenge.
"Personally, for me, to be in a new and different role with more responsibility, I love and I want to handle that great responsibility to make sure I get other guys involved, all my teammates and try to be the best leader I can possibly be.”
If Brown plays like he has the first five games of the season, an All-Star berth awaits, and that would be even more impressive given the beefed-up nature of the East this season. More importantly, bigger things could be ahead for the Celtics because Brown evolving into a top 25 player in the NBA — when coupled with Tatum’s potential plunge into the Top 10 — positions Boston to be legitimate title contenders for at least the next half decade.
All that said, it’s one thing to have a big night against a decimated Grizzlies squad. Brown needs to produce his best basketball against the league’s elite. The Celtics don’t win opening night against Milwaukee without his efforts. A late steal/layup combo in Indiana ensured Boston got out of there with a split.
Brown’s fingerprints need to be on every game. He brought a certain consistency with his play inside the bubble that made you feel good about what was ahead in the 2020-21 season. Brown needs to continue to grow and expand his game.
Fortunately for the Celtics, he seems unwilling to grow content with his progress.