ORLANDO — Jaylen Brown’s phone lit up after the Celtics’ 119-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday in their resumption opener. Brown looked and it was his grandfather Willie.
Brown played relatively well in that game, scoring 22 points despite foul trouble. Willie, however, wasn’t trying to hear that. He called his grandson, telling him if he could, without getting fined or risking quarantine, he should bring himself back to Boston for a couple of more workouts.
Willie, a former boxer, worked out with Jaylen during the pandemic. And the fruits of their labor weren’t apparent after the Bucks game.
Sunday was dramatically different. When the Celtics needed a bucket, Brown delivered. A short jumper on which he had to hang an extra half-second in the air to avoid being blocked by Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic. A long three that he knew was going down the moment he caught the pass from Jayson Tatum, putting the Celtics up 1 with 5:50 left.
Another go-ahead 3-pointer 59 seconds later and finally a sealing corner triple to give him 30 points.
Brown may have had bigger games for the Celtics, but none were more impactful than in Boston’s 128-124 win over the Blazers at The Arena. The Celtics blew a 24-point first-half lead and were actually down 4 with 7:36 left before Brown scored 13 of their final 27 points.
His improvement this season has been apparent, but perhaps that work with grandpa even further accelerated that ascension. In the first two games in the bubble, Brown has noticeably been more assertive and confident. He is eager to shoot the three. He has enough confidence in his handles to drive into traffic. He no longer relies heavily on his athleticism, although it’s still a weapon.
“On the floor I’ve gotten better, been working out with my grandpa,” he said. “Every single day. He’s my toughest critic. He called me after the first game that we lost and told me I needed to come home. He didn’t like what he saw. I’ll call him to see what he said today. For him, it’s a never-ending thing. It’s like the carrot in front of you; you are never going to catch it.”
While Tatum returned from his poor bubble debut against the Milwaukee Bucks with 34 points, Brown was the more pivotal player down the stretch, saving Boston from what would have been an embarrassing and crushing defeat.
The Celtics looked flawless in the first half, leading the desperate-for-the-playoff Blazers by 19 points at the break. But their margin began gradually slipping and then All-Star Damian Lillard transformed from moderately interested to unstoppable and brought the Blazers all the way back.
Boston has been guilty of blowing big leads before the season was suspended. What’s more, in their final game before the halt, they allowed Indiana to rally from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to take the lead before the Celtics rallied for victory.
It was a similar situation Sunday, but Brown took control when the Celtics desperately needed it. This bubble is like a professional AAU tournament, with the NBA elite teams all trying to show they are NBA Finals ready. On Saturday, the Toronto Raptors pulled away from the Los Angeles Lakers in the fourth quarter for an impressive 15-point win.
The Raptors are now the talk of the NBA Bubble.
The Celtics dropped their opener and then were on the verge of losing to a 30-37 team before Brown’s heroics. Starting the bubble games with two losses with a key game Tuesday against Miami would have been emotionally damaging.
“First and foremost I think we needed to win, so really that’s all my mind was on,” Brown said. “We definitely didn’t want to come down here and start off with two straight losses. We wouldn’t have been able to sleep good at night knowing the Celtics fan base and how they would have felt if we lost two straight games.”
It was a quality challenge for the Celtics. The fact they rallied after wasting that lead and held Lillard scoreless for the final 7:36 is a testament to their mettle, but it would be nice if the Celtics didn’t make things so hard on themselves, if they could become more consistent and with a bigger killer instinct.
The encouraging sign is that Brown had that “look” down the stretch. The Celtics need a closer. Kemba Walker was on the bench for the entire fourth quarter because he had reached his minutes limit. Tatum scored 21 points in the first half but was blitzed by Portland defensively in the second half, creating an opportunity for Brown to shine, to take over, to flourish when it counted.
“I thought Jaylen’s shot was probably as critical as anything,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s got confidence, for sure. I’m glad Jayson made that pass to him in the corner. I thought Jaylen was enormous tonight.”
The Celtics are going to need a better-than-ever Brown and Tatum to make this playoff run. They were good Sunday, and Brown soaring confidence and improving game has become one of the bigger story lines in the bubble so far.