When the Celtics were scuffling for the first 50 games of their season, staggering to a 25-25 record, there were all sorts of remedies bandied about. Everyone had a prescription to fix the Progeny of the Parquet. Among the most misguided and absurd was trading Jaylen Brown.
The Brooklyn Nets certainly wish the Celtics had split up Jayson Tatum and his running mate as some clamored for in the Celtics’ darkest hours. If president of basketball operations Brad Stevens had yielded to the temptation to take drastic measures and remake the team, the Nets wouldn’t be staring at an 0-2 series deficit. Brown keyed a 16-2 fourth-quarter run that allowed the Celtics to rally from a 7-point deficit and claim a 114-107 victory Wednesday night at TD Garden.
Shaking off a slow start, Brown scored 10 of his team-high 22 points in the final frame, continuing a theme for him in this series of saving his best for last. He scored a team-high 9 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1, including a late drive with the Green down 3 that set the stage for Tatum’s epic buzzer-beating layup.
In a series brimming with star power, the player shining consistently when it matters most is Brown. He’s averaging 22.5 points on 48.6 percent shooting. Kevin Durant (both games), animosity magnet Kyrie Irving (Game 2), and teammate Tatum, who hit just 3 of his first 14 shots in Game 2, have all issued clunkers. Brown is the lone star unbowed.
That’s not an anomaly for Brown in the playoffs. The wise-beyond-his-years wing has now scored 20 or more points in seven straight playoff games dating back to the 2020 Eastern Conference finals against Miami in the Orlando bubble.
“We know JB is going to find a way,” said Celtics forward Grant Williams, who kept the team afloat with 17 points through three quarters. “He’s one of those guys. He’s uplifting.
“We know that JB, no matter if he’s turning the ball over or missing a couple of shots, he’s going to find the right wave. It’s going to revert back to the mean.
“He’s one of those guys that we can always rely on, him and Jayson and Smart. All three of them have really done a great job of leading us this year.”
There were a lot of cries, including from this corner, to peel off a piece from that aforementioned core when the Celtics looked about as championship-driven as they were in the days of M.L. Carr running the operation. My preferred parting partner was Marcus Smart, the fetishized hustle guy.
Smart was treated by the team as though he won a Nobel Prize for capturing Defensive Player of the Year honors, with multiple tributes in Game 2. Find yourself an employer that indulges you and values you the way the Celtics do Smart.
The idea of breaking up Brown and Tatum was always a nonstarter. Stevens felt the same way. He felt Brown was a complement, not a detriment, to Tatum.
He knew other teams would kill to have a tandem like The Jays, two 25-and-under All-Stars who can create offense at will.
“The one thing that I do believe is that as far as abilities, mind-sets, and competitiveness, they do fit,” Stevens told me prior to the playoffs.
“With this group, they were two I never lost much sleep over, to be honest.”
Tatum and Brown were separated last postseason. Brown missed the first-round matchup with the Nets after undergoing left wrist surgery. Tatum lit up the Nets like a Coachella stage but was dispatched by KD and Kyrie in five games as a solo act.
“It makes the world of difference having Jaylen Brown as opposed to not having him like last year,” Tatum said. “He’s a competitor. I know that. We all know that. It’s that time of the year. We all are willing to do whatever it takes to win every game.”
In Brown’s case, that included logging a playoff-career-high six assists, snagging four rebounds, and adding a team-best three steals to go along with his 22 points.
It also extended to providing inspirational oration at halftime.
Ironically, the Nets are responsible for the Brown-Tatum partnership. It was the trade with Brooklyn in 2013 that ended the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett era and netted the draft picks the Celtics turned into Tatum and Brown, back-to-back No. 3 overall selections in 2016 and 2017.
Tatum was embraced immediately and an instant star. He’s a basketball natural, smooth as an untouched jar of peanut butter. It has been more of a slow burn for Brown, who adds elements and flourishes to his game each season.
The same fan base that cheered him wildly Wednesday night booed vociferously in the same building in 2016 when Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck announced the selection of Brown.
Fans wanted the Celtics to ship away the pick for a veteran star like Jimmy Butler. Now, Brown is that player.
Brown has cemented his status as a building block, not a stumbling block, in the Celtics’ pursuit of Banner No. 18.
And on a team with the volatile Smart and the soft-spoken Tatum, he has become the emotional ballast, a connector between role players like Williams and Payton Pritchard and the rarefied air of NBA stardom.
He has experience with and appreciation for both roles. In a league where perspective, selflessness, and self-awareness aren’t always in supply, Brown exudes them.
He’s not worried about being considered on the same level as Tatum, Durant, or Kyrie.
“We’ve got to keep winning as a team,” said Brown. “It’s not me and Jayson. It’s not me, Jayson, and Smart. It’s the Celtics.”
Perhaps that’s why he demurred when asked to talk about his own hoops heroics, instead pointing out Williams and Pritchard.
“They were really the heroes of this game,” said Brown.
But it’s Brown donning the cape when it matters most.