It was evident when Jaylen Brown’s first free throw attempt fell far short, looked forced and uncomfortable, the second attempt would be a challenge to convert.
Brown stood at the free throw line with a chance to give the Celtics a lead with 7.6 seconds left in overtime and then a chance to tie. He missed both opportunities. An old issue returned to haunt Brown with a vengeance on Thursday at TD Garden.
The Celtics’ second-best player having an All-Star caliber season blew his chance to help his team win a game they worked so hard to control until they slipped in overtime.
The 120-117 loss to the Knicks was a bitter one, and Brown became the central figure of the burden, having cracked under the pressure of such a high-intensity game.
Brown is better than he showed at the free throw line — he’s 78.5 percent for the season — and during the game. But elite professional athletes have nights like these, in which they have to accept failure, turn off their phones from social media and reflect.
“Just have be better to be honest,” Brown said. “Tonight was just a rough game. I’m a better basketball player than I played today. Those missed free throws kind of embodied the whole game. I really didn’t get it going, didn’t give my team enough energy to win.”
Brown scored 22 points on 8-for-22 shooting and three turnovers after getting the day off Tuesday in Miami. The difference between Brown and Jayson Tatum is Tatum always has been considered the more skilled player. Brown has had to work vigorously to improve his all-around game and he has.
He has become a better midrange shooter, he’s fierce at the rim and a reliable 3-point shooter. The two he needed to improve was free throw shooting — especially in the clutch —and ball handling, and he’s taken a step forward in both.
But this game is humbling. Just when you believe you’ve solved those free throw jitters, ; you’re trying to knock down two in front of 20,000 fans, a national television audience.
The second free throw really never stood a chance, not because Brown didn’t try to make it, because he tried the same form that caused him to short-arm the first one. He stepped to the line for the second, heard “encouragement” from Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, smiled, took a deep breath and then released. Clank.
The Celtics would have another chance, with Tatum missing a rushed 3-pointer in the final seconds that could have tied. But it’s Brown who goes home into the chilly night lamenting his mistakes, perhaps doubting himself and clamoring for another chance.
The hope for Celtics faithful is this moment encourages, motivates, and fuels Brown to be better. There are flaws and there have been some disappointing moments, such as the two missed free throws in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat, when the Celtics could have taken the lead with 2 minutes, 18 seconds left.
Brown has bounced back with the best season of his career, but he’s been plagued at times with turnovers and missed free throws. He is a top 20 player in the world, an athletic marvel who has improved immensely since his rookie season.
But it’s time for Brown to take that next step, shore up those weaknesses, and improve.
“I think for your own sanity, you just let it go,” Brown said. “You come out and keep playing basketball and come out and be a better version of yourself. I love this game, and I love the highs and lows that come with it, so you don’t shy away from it. You take it, wear it and be better on the next one.
“I’ve been through worse, to be honest. Tonight I had a chance to help my team get a victory and we came up short and it’s tough but I’d done seen worse.”
The Celtics are officially in a slump, having lost their last three games. They still own the best record in the NBA and still have the potential to win 60 games and reach the NBA Finals but they’ll need that Brown who refused to remain content with his game. They’ll need that Brown who can hit those clutch free throws and be more sure-handed with the ball.
“Everybody needs a pick-me-up but we’ve got the utmost confidence in him,’ Tatum said. “I can’t bet on NBA games but I would bet everything I got he’s in that situation again, he would knock them both down. Just short-term memory, move on and get ready for Saturday.”
Brown can’t lament too long on this setback, but he does need to store it in the back of his mind, use it as fuel and work on those weaknesses that separate him from being a top 10 player. There’s no doubt he’s capable.