Ime Udoka’s primary goal is to get the best out of Jaylen Brown on a nightly basis, and that hasn’t happened so far.
In his first three games, Brown scored 46, 9, and 30 points. But it was his most recent performance, a 13-point outing in Wednesday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, that has Udoka concerned. Brown looked lethargic and a step slow from the opening tip.
Brown missed 10 days during the final stages of training camp recovering from COVID-19, and he put himself through physical rigors to prepare himself for the Oct. 20 opener against the New York Knicks.
On that night he looked like a top-10 NBA player. He was unstoppable in a 46-point performance in the double-overtime loss. Two nights later, he missed 10 of 13 shots and all seven 3-point attempts in a loss to the Toronto Raptors.
After missing Sunday’s game against the Houston Rockets with a sore knee, Brown returned Monday against the Charlotte Hornets and scored 30 points, 24 in the second half and overtime, pairing with teammate Jayson Tatum to help the Celtics rally for the victory.
Through the first three quarters Wednesday, Brown was 1-for-9 shooting with 3 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist. He was beaten repeatedly on defense and didn’t seem completely engaged.
“It’s a tough one, and I see it as well,” Udoka said of Brown’s every-other-game struggles. “I try to ramp him up during the game, pump him up to get going but the contrast of some of the those previous games, especially Charlotte and the New York game, and the way you see him come out [Wednesday] is kind of mind-boggling. But it could be a number of things. Just got to find the juice from the start.”
What is noticeable is Brown tends to stand on the weak side of the Celtics’ sets when Tatum is dribbling the ball, seemingly waiting for a pass but looking as if he could do considerably more to contribute to the offense. Brown shouldn’t be constantly standing for a corner 3-pointer while watching Tatum dribble to create a shot or an opportunity for a teammate. That does no good for Brown or the team.
Brown should either have a bigger role in shot creating — not only when the Celtics need buckets — or he should be slashing to the basket for a layup or dunk as defenses are focused on containing Tatum. They have to make things easier for each other.
Standing in the middle, watching Tatum work isn’t what Brown should be doing. That is the kind of isolation basketball Udoka wanted to eliminate from the Brad Stevens era. But in other situations Wednesday, when Brown did become offensively engaged, he either got discouraged after missing a shot or didn’t attack the basket with full vigor and got blocked or stripped.
Perhaps the physical effects of COVID-19 are impacting him. It happened to Tatum last season, barely being able to breathe during a game at Washington in February, and former Celtic Evan Fournier, who was having vision issues after he was cleared to return.
It may have been best Wednesday for Udoka to remove Brown from the game at halftime and allow him to rest and gather himself. He finally got untracked in the fourth quarter with 10 points as the Celtics tried rallying, but he also committed two turnovers, including fumbling a pass into the hands of Bradley Beal with the Celtics down 3 with six minutes left.
Brown was not made available for comment after the game.
“Just call certain plays and get him in certain spots,” Udoka said when asked how to get Brown engaged. “Try to limit him doing it all by himself and feel like he has to get himself going. A lot of different ways to do it, but when you see [the sluggishness] from the get-go, really grab him and talk to him and tell him you’ve got to carry the load tonight, especially with Jayson out. He obviously did start out very slow.”
But the lack of focus is also a team issue. For the second time, Udoka accused his team of being lackadaisical and center Al Horford repeatedly said during his postgame news conference that “focus and effort” should not be an issue.
“It’s hard to explain at this point early in the season,” Udoka said. “To come off a huge win for whatever reason they were lacking in focus and intensity this morning.”
It was obvious Brown wasn’t as engaged Wednesday, and the more he tried, the more mistakes he made and the more discouraged he became. The Celtics offense was stagnant with Tatum reverting to over-dribbling to create shots. Brown, meanwhile, managed just four rebounds and one assist in 37 minutes. They are not blending together well enough early in the Udoka era, and he has to find some way to get Brown more engaged and take the offensive burden off Tatum.
It’s the first major challenge of Udoka’s coaching tenure and no one said coaching the Celtics, despite their talent, was going to be easy. But Brown’s disengagement was apparent for the soldout TD Garden crowd and it’s becoming a major concern.