As the Celtics scuffled through their difficult road trip last week, All-Star forward Jaylen Brown tried to convince the medical staff to allow him to return and help steady the team. But it was most important that whenever Brown returned from his hamstring issue, he returned for good.
So his individual workouts amid Boston’s 1-4 skid were focused on getting him to that point. And on Sunday, Brown was cleared to play in Monday’s home game against the Bucks, adding a much-needed reinforcement during a critical juncture of this season.
“I wanted to be out there to fight with my teammates, but the medical staff suggested that we make sure that first off you protect yourself,” Brown said. “I think I came back maybe a little too early before, because I was not myself. And hamstrings are a little bit tricky, so we were just taking time to figure it out.”
Brown strained his hamstring in the Celtics’ Nov. 4 win over the Heat and was sidelined for eight games. His playing time was limited when he returned and he dealt with consistent soreness, so he was shut down again after five games and missed Boston’s entire five-game road trip.
“I haven’t experienced in the last few days any type of grabbing sensation that I’ve been feeling over the last couple of weeks,” Brown said. “And I think just rest was the biggest difference. I think I did all types of treatments and saw all types of doctors. And I think just over the course of time, the body just naturally healed itself at the pace it wanted to go at.”
Coach Ime Udoka said several times in recent weeks Brown would not be back on the court until he was 100 percent healthy. The long-term risks of a speedy return far outweighed any potential short-term benefit.
He is expected to be limited to about 30 minutes on Monday, but that is about five minutes more than his last return, and Udoka said it was based on potential fatigue and conditioning issues, not concerns about protecting the hamstring.
“You can see that the burst is back,” Udoka said. “He’s stepped it up throughout the week, especially on that trip he ramped it up, and he feels good after workouts. That’s the main thing—how his body recovers, not having soreness or any tightness, as he did when he came back.”
Brown, who is averaging 21.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, dealt with hamstring issues earlier in his career, too. He said that part of his recovery this time was focused on identifying and fixing the root cause. He said that extra stress was sometimes being placed on certain muscle groups, and he has worked to modify his gait a bit.
“Just been adamantly working, trying to get back to how I felt before the season started,” Brown said. “Coming into the year I felt like the best version of myself, in terms of my career. So I wanted to get back to that feeling, and I’m moving in that direction.”
After the Celtics were walloped by the Suns on Friday, Udoka hinted changes to lineups and rotations could be in store. He slightly backtracked from that possibility Sunday, shifting the focus to how Brown’s return could ignite the team on its own.
But he said the coaches have studied Boston’s most effective rotations and groupings and insinuated that some minor adjustments could be made.
“We’ll insert Jaylen and not expect him to change the world, but it’s a huge piece of what we’ve been missing,” Udoka said. “Offensively it will help, defensively it will help, and it should help all around.”
Despite Brown’s return, the Celtics will still not be completely whole. Josh Richardson will miss his second game in a row due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Udoka declined to discuss whether Richardson was able to fly back from Phoenix with the team.
There has been a flood of COVID-19-related absences league-wide in recent days. The Bulls, who have been hit especially hard, might have just nine players available for their game against the Pistons on Tuesday.
Udoka said he spoke to the Celtics about taking some extra precautions to avoid a similar situation.
“We just have to be more strict on our protocols, wear our masks and be diligent about our process,” he said.