Nights like this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because Jaylen Brown has shown he’s capable of carrying the Celtics in stretches. He has shown the ability to be a No. 1 option.
With the presence of Jayson Tatum, he doesn’t have to be that guy. Tatum and Brown are a tandem, but Tatum has received more accolades, respect, and recognition as an elite player. It’s not that Brown wants to prove he’s capable of taking what Tatum already has; he wants to be appreciated and adulated alongside Tatum, on the same level.
With Tatum sitting out Sunday’s game against the Washington Wizards, Brown had the rare opportunity to experience what it was like being that guy. It began when Eddie Palladino called his name last when announcing the starting lineups at TD Garden and continued when Brown was the No. 1 offensive option.
The result was a 36-point outing, many of those points scored with relative ease, and the Celtics cruised to a 130-121 win, the offense looking as precise as when Tatum is present.
Brown scored his 36 points in just 34 minutes with two turnovers. Sunday was expected to be a challenge without the Celtics’ best player but it really wasn’t. Boston led for the final 42 minutes, 26 seconds, overwhelming the Wizards with crisp ball movement and pinpoint 3-point shooting.
Brown didn’t dominate the offense and force shots. He scored within the flow and rhythm of the offense. He attacked the rim because he’s more confident in his ability to score there.
“It was fun, just coming out and playing basketball, being able to maintain our level of play without our leader, our big dog not being in the rotation,” Brown said. “It was fun because it challenges everybody, allowed everybody to step up in their role. I got full faith and belief in myself in any situation, but that’s a part of being on a winning team, being able to be a team player, making sacrifices in order to get back to what we want to do.”
He has dissipated his bull-in-a-china-shop ways when driving to the basket, blending in graceful moves, artistic spins and also some vigor when he rises for a dunk.
Sunday was the best of Jaylen Brown. It’s what the Celtics faithful have watched for the past seven years in pieces and parts.
Marcus Smart said he remembers Brown as a rookie in 2016-17, when he played at the pace of a Ferrari on the Autobahn but with no finesse. His teammates appreciated his fury but all ferocity and no subtlety doesn’t work in the NBA.
Smart said Brown told him, when defenses hear teammates tell Brown to slow down, he speeds up to catch them off guard. Smart was dumbfounded.
“He used to go one-on-four, one-on-five and throw up some (expletive),” Smart said. “He’s using more of his grace now to where he understands that sometimes just be patient and let the game come to me instead of just trying to go get it himself. I think that part of his game has grown exponentially for us. He’s patient with the ball, making the reads, taking the shots, when to pick his spots.
“He’s definitely matured in a way for us big time. The more he continues to mature and grow in his game mentally and on the court is only going to make us better.”
Initially Brown dispelled any Smart stories about that rookie season. But the teammates have grown close since their scrape in the NBA bubble. Six of Smart’s seven assists Sunday were to Brown and their games are blossoming simultaneously. The Celtics didn’t need Tatum Sunday because they had premium Brown and premium Smart.
“We’ve been playing together for a long time,” Brown said of Smart. “We’re just playing off one another. Smart’s a guy, he believes in me, a guy that’s always letting me know like, ‘You’re one of the better guys in this league too, don’t let everybody forget that.’ And I appreciate him for it, being a great teammate, being a great supporter.
“Me and Smart, we’ve had fights. We’ve had ups and downs, but that’s my brother and I appreciate him trying to make me the best version of myself.”
Coach Joe Mazzulla was hoping to give Brown the rest of the night off when he left the game in the final minute of the third quarter with the Celtics holding a 25-point lead. But when the Wizards made a fourth-quarter run against the Celtics’ second unit, Brown reentered with 5:52 left and quickly restored order with two and-1s before exiting the game with just over two minutes left.
Brown finished a plus-26 and helped the Celtics to 61.9 percent shooting through three quarters. On this night, he was the man, and he didn’t have to share that title. It’s not that he wants to be considered the unrivaled No. 1 option. That’s Tatum. But Brown does want to be respected for his skills, his improvement, and his dedication to his craft.
“Obviously, I feel like I came into this league very talented but I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older, being in the playoffs and experience has been the best teacher, and I’ve improved throughout this league,” he said. “I come out each and every day and I’ll do my job and I’ll continue to do that, and I’m capable of doing more.”