As the Celtics were still getting to know one another at the start of this season, Jaylen Brown’s athleticism was obvious to his new teammates. He could slice to the rim with a combination of speed and power that no others could really match.
And with the departure of Isaiah Thomas, who averaged a team-high 8.5 free-throw attempts per game last year, Brown’s ability to drive and draw contact would be essential. The problem, though, was that when Brown got to the foul line, he struggled with what should be the easiest part of the game. Kyrie Irving noticed it early on.
“Hey,” he said to Brown. “Those are free points you can add up that are going to be big for our team.”
Celtics coaches were puzzled by all the misses at the line. Brown had good form, his 3-point percentages were on the rise, and he was not a rookie anymore. Yet one attempt after another was thudding off the rim.
“He started out not very good,” assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “I didn’t want to really talk about it much early on, because he was getting it from a lot of different areas. It was like all he was thinking about was putting pressure on himself to make free throws, because he was getting to the line and wasn’t coming through.”
Over the Celtics’ first 58 games, Brown made just 57.3 percent of his foul shots, a figure usually reserved for a lumbering center, not a skilled wing. Since then, though, he has found a rhythm by clearing his mind, shooting 81 percent since Feb. 13.
The Celtics have attempted just 20.7 free throws per game this year, ranking 20th in the NBA. Brown is averaging 3.3, second to Irving, who is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery Saturday. So Brown’s ability to get to the line, and his ability to cash in when he does, could be essential in a tense playoff series.
“I was thinking about the shots,” Brown said. “I was thinking about them too much. It’s an easy shot. I was in my own head, really. The reality is that it’s a free throw. But you should still treat it like it’s a jump shot almost. It’s a mental thing.”
As Shrewsberry studied Brown’s foul shots during the struggles, he came to the same conclusion. Brown’s form and release and follow-through all looked clean. There was no hitch or herky-jerky motion. And that was a relief, because tinkering with shooting form in the midst of a season can be tricky.
“It’s almost like paralyzing when you think about everything else,” Shrewsberry said. “People are talking about your form, or you’re falling back and not lifting right. Just keep it simple. His form was good, so it had to be somewhere else where he wasn’t all the way clicking.”
When Brown’s shots missed, they were often missing badly, slapping off the side, front, or back of the rim rather than swirling in-and-out on an unfortunate bounce. It seemed to Shrewsberry that Brown, whose intensity is usually quite noticeable on his face during a game, was thinking about the last play or the next play. He was not thinking about that quiet moment at the foul line.
“We just tried to get him to slow everything down and take a little more time,” Shrewsberry said. “He’d catch the ball and he’d really just rush into his free-throw attempt instead of moving from one thing to the next.
“My big thing was to just take a deep breath and pause before he started anything within his shot, just to kind of clear his mind of whatever just happened.”
The NBA does not track the amount of time spent at the foul line, but film review of two random free-throw trips — one during Brown’s struggles, and one during his hot streak — offered evidence of a more patient approach.
After one two-shot foul in the Celtics’ Oct. 20 game against the 76ers, Brown took three dribbles before lofting each free throw. The first shot was released after 5.3 seconds, and the second after 4.6 seconds. He missed both badly.
After one two-shot foul in the March 25 win over the Kings, Brown’s routine remained similar, with three dribbles, but he took a noticeably longer pause before taking the shot. He held the ball for 7.4 seconds and 6.5 seconds, an average of about two seconds longer per shot than the October game.
“I have the same form,” Brown said. “I just slowed down a little bit more and just focused a little bit. I took a deeper breath, just to relax myself. That’s about it. I feel more relaxed. I feel more comfortable now.”
“You can really see it,” Shrewsberry said. “You can notice it by the way he’s shooting, too, by where his misses are. When he was struggling, a lot of misses were short because he rushed it so much that he wasn’t really going through his routine. So he’d be all over the place.
“Now if he misses, it’s more in and out after having a great chance of going in.”
Brown has had a strong offensive season for the Celtics, averaging 14.3 points per game while making 46.5 percent of his shots and 38.9 percent of his 3-pointers. Despite his uptick since mid February, he is still shooting just 63.9 percent from the line. As Irving pointed out at the start of the year, there are points to pick up and Brown is determined to seize them.
“His ability to be able to get to the line and really take advantage of getting to the line when people foul him makes him that much harder to guard, especially when you shoot at a high clip like that,” Shrewsberry said.
“The more we can get the easier points is huge for us, especially when you get to playoff time.”