A few thoughts about the Celtics as they return home after being kicked around during their two-game series against the 76ers:
▪ Jaylen Brown’s dominant start to this season rolled on Friday night, when he made 16 of 28 shots and tied his career high with 42 points. He is now averaging 26.9 points on 52.4 percent shooting, along with 6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. There is not expected to be an All-Star Game this year, but All-Star teams will probably be selected, and at this point it would take a considerable collapse by Brown, or a lengthy absence, for him to not get the first nod of his career.
And if those statistics aren’t convincing enough, just listen to the comments of 76ers coach Doc Rivers following Friday’s game:
“He’s just tough,” Rivers said. “He’s terrific. He makes hard shots, too. Obviously, you give him a three, he’s a dead-eye, knockdown 3-point shooter. I don’t think he was that when he first came in the league, and now he is. But his biggest improvement and where they really developed, off the dribble he’s really tough. Great in-between game, great all the way to the basket, great threes. When you have all of those things you’re one of the better offensive players in this league, and he is.”
If someone had referred to Brown as a knockdown 3-point shooter as recently as, well, last month, it would have raised some eyebrows. Now, that idea feels more valid by the day. But the fact that Brown’s 41.6 percent shooting from long range isn’t even what has impressed Rivers most speaks volumes about how far Brown’s offensive game has developed. The key for Brown will be maintaining the rhythm once he is playing alongside both Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker again.
▪ Celtics fans who are eager to see the team hurry up and use its $28.5 million trade exception to acquire a high-level scorer to fix the bench issues should probably sit back down because it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The trade deadline is two months away and other teams are still trying to win, too, and will be in no rush to ship out an elite scorer for a draft-heavy package so soon.
The timing of the James Harden trade was an outlier, because that situation had become messy and unfixable. Also, this will be the first trade deadline in which the expanded playoff field is in place. Remember, the ninth- and 10th-place teams will be eligible for a play-in tournament. It will be interesting to see if that leads to fewer sellers at the deadline, with playoff spots still in reach for all but the true bottom-feeders.
▪ But help is on the way. Tatum, who missed the last four games after testing positive for COVID-19, will miss Sunday’s game against the Cavaliers but is expected to return soon. Also, second-year wing Romeo Langford, who has yet to play this year as he works his way back from offseason wrist surgery, was seen completing shooting drills prior to both games in Philadelphia. Coach Brad Stevens said no return date has been set, but Langford looked comfortable handling and shooting the ball, and Boston’s front office remains quite high on his potential.
▪ Speaking of the Cavaliers, in recent seasons they would have been the perfect elixir for a three-game losing streak such as Boston’s. But this Cleveland team is thriving. It just grabbed back-to-back wins over the Nets and is just a half-game behind the Celtics.
Third-year point guard Collin Sexton, who was drafted by Cleveland with the first-round pick it acquired from Boston in the 2017 Kyrie Irving trade, is averaging 26.8 points per game. The Cavaliers were a bit of a silent facilitator in the deal that sent Harden from Houston to Brooklyn, acquiring rising star Jarrett Allen and reliable veteran Taurean Prince without giving up any of their core pieces. Cleveland could challenge for a playoff spot this year.
▪ The season is still young enough that one big game or two can shift statistics rather dramatically, but the Celtics’ recent skid can be attributed to their defensive lapses. Boston has had a top-six defensive rating in each of the last three seasons, and it currently sits 20th, allowing 110.8 points per 100 possessions. The four-game absence of Tatum, one of its top defenders, did not help. And some of the new additions are still figuring out the system after an abbreviated training camp. But there have been stretches in which it was clear the effort level was below the standard of a Stevens-coached team.
▪ The Celtics took a knee during the national anthem for four games following the storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters on Jan. 6. Their statement was centered on what they viewed as a disparate police response, as those protestors appeared to be met with minimal resistance while military force was used to combat protests during the Black Lives Matter movement.
During the two games in Philadelphia, though, the Celtics took a different approach to the anthem. Instead of kneeling, the players gathered in a team huddle/group hug while the anthem was performed. Brown, who has been outspoken about social justice issues during his Celtics tenure, was asked about this latest statement following Friday’s game, but he declined to address it, saying simply: “Next question.”
Ever since the Celtics and Heat kneeled for the anthem on Jan. 6, all of Boston’s opponents have stood. Boston’s huddle is certainly a unique approach that appears to be a sign of unity and protest.