Jaylen Brown and the Celtics break through

BOSTON — There was less than a minute to play and a playoff series hung in the balance as Jaylen Brown flew down the court with the ball and a chance to tie the score. Transition is where he’s at his best. Give him a clear runway to the basket and Brown is capable of throwing down on anyone. This was his moment to put a stamp on a playoff series and a punctuation point on a season that failed to meet anyone’s expectations, let alone his high standards.

But Brown didn’t try to throw it down and he didn’t try to force the action. Instead he made one of the best plays of his career at exactly the right moment.

“You’ve got be patient enough to know that things take time, but also understand that time takes things,” he had told me the day before at the team’s practice facility. “It’s a balance. Yes, I’m patient, but at the same time, I have a blueprint.”

You see, Brown believes he is ready to become one of the better two-way players in the league. Not tomorrow, not in a few years. Today.

In the first two games against the Pacers, his offense had been an afterthought. His job was to defend Indiana sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, who is the closest thing Indy has to a go-to player without Victor Oladipo. Brown has done his job well against Bogdanovic, staying up in his air space, trailing around screens and making it as hard as possible for Bogdanovic to score.

It’s a vital job, but it’s a decidedly unglamorous role in a series that’s been ugly by nature. You don’t get asked to step up to the postgame podium by simply playing your role.

So here he was, streaking down the court with a step on his defender and the thunder roar of the Garden behind him. What better opportunity for Brown prove his value on both ends of the floor? As he made his move, Indiana’s rim protector Myles Turner was closing fast. Even better! Turner’s been a force at the rim, and man, could you imagine jammin on Myles?

Instead, in one fluid motion, Brown reversed the ball to the corner where Jayson Tatum was all alone. Tatum’s shot was true and the Celtics claimed a lead they didn’t relinquish. Afterward, Celtics coach Brad Stevens called it, “One of the best plays I’ve ever seen him make.”

The conversation between coach and player, as Brown recounted later, went like this.

Stevens: That was a hell of a play. That was a big time play.

Brown: You probably thought I was going to lay it up, didn’t you?

Stevens: No, I knew you were going to make the right play.

This is what the postseason is all about now for Brown and the rest of the Celtics. The regular season is dead, may it be forgotten quickly. What matters is what they do now and through the first three games of this series, the Celtics look an awful lot like a team that’s coming together.

It’s not just about winning and losing games. It’s about making plays for each other, setting screens with purpose, hitting the open man, recovering on defense, and most of all, trusting one another.

“There’s a different energy in the building because we know we’ve got to do everything it takes to win,” Kyrie Irving said after that Game 2 victory. “There’s so much you don’t have to worry about anymore. You don’t have to score a bunch of points to make an impact on the game. We have a bunch of talented players and now we’re in the postseason and we have to do the little things.”

Talent, ambition, and ego. These have been the defining traits for the Celtics this season and Jaylen Brown has never lacked for any of the three. They are not bad things in the context of the NBA. In fact they are absolutely necessary for survival. They are, however, not great in the context of a team that needs its players to make individual sacrifices.

Like most of the Celtics, Brown’s season did not get off to a great start. He had trouble finding his way in a starting lineup now crowded with players who need the ball. He was often forced to defend bigger opponents as the de-facto four man. As the Celtics struggled out of the gate, Brown came in for his share of criticism, and he was moved to the bench in December.

Rather than see it as a demotion, Brown used the bench to find his niche and carve out his own space. His shooting steadily improved throughout the winter and his scoring and rebounding returned to previous levels. He was still up and down as they all were, but if he didn’t take a massive step forward this season, he also didn’t take a giant one backward. Sometimes maintaining is an accomplishment given the circrumstances.

“I don’t make excuses,” Brown told me. “You need to have a maturity level about being in this position. It was a challenge, probably the most challenging thing I’ve had to deal with in terms of expectations and getting put into a scenario where this is reality; this is your role.

“It was tough to deal with,” he continued. “But either you can make excuses and try to get to a better situation, which may or may not be, or you can work through it and try to make the best of it. I chose to make the best of it rather than point fingers and make excuses.”

Still, Brown didn’t get here by settling. In his mind, he’s ready to become an All-Star given the right opportunity. Honestly, he’s always felt that way about his game. It’s one of the endearing things about him. You could call it irrational confidence if not for the fact that Brown is so precisely analytical about himself.

“Coming into the league nobody thought I could score the ball,” Brown said. “So they typecast me as just a defender. Once they saw that I could score the ball at a high level, that’s when the dilemma started. My scoring is just a bonus for the coaching staff, front office. What they wanted me to do when I was drafted here was be a defender. I can do that, but it’s a double-edged sword because I feel like I can one of the better two-way players in this league.”

The thing about doing the right thing, is that it comes back to you. Call it karma or summon the basketball gods for a further explanation, but good basketball begets more good basketball and opportunities reveal themselves

In Game 3 in Indiana, Brown and the Celtics had a point to make. They proved they could win at home, but the road has been unkind to them the last few years. To get a win in Indy, they would need to come out strong and remain connected as never before. They would need to play through their mistakes and weather the various storms without the energy of the home crowd behind them.

Brown was ready from the jump. He went 4-for-4 and made all three of his 3’s in the first quarter, eclipsing the total number of points he had scored in the two previous games. He went on to make his first seven shots en route to a 23-point performance on 8-for-9 shooting with seven rebounds and all the defense you could want.

“I think everybody knows that I’m known for the defensive potential I have,” Brown had told me after that practice on Tuesday. “When I’m really locked in, I can make it hard on anyone to score. At the same time I can lead a team in scoring as well.”

Prophetic words as it turned out.

Say What?!

“We have a very long and successful history together with Klutch Sports. Rich Paul and I have spoken about Anthony (Davis) and I think we’re both excited about what we can potentially build here.”

David Griffin, the Pelicans new head of basketball operations.

Reaction: I still think AD gets traded this summer, but this is a smart opening gambit by Griff. Wipe the slate clean and start over without all the animosity of the past few months. Who knows, maybe Davis agrees to stay and sign that massive extension. Regardless, the Pels have already remade their franchise with Griff in place. Now he just needs to remake the roster.

“I’m Kevin Durant. Y’all know who I am.”]

Kevin Durant, obviously.

Reaction: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Durant is the best player in the league. He showed it again in Game 3.

Derrick White came out like he hadn’t eaten in two days. He came out hungry. He came out pissed off. And he sent a very loud and clear message.”

Denver coach Michael Malone.

Reaction: I really want the Nuggets to stick around just because Malone’s quotes are so great.

“I think James was [Harden] is having a better year than he did last year. I think Chris [Paul] is healthy. I think, yeah, we’re definitely better. We haven’t proved it yet. But yeah, I think we can be better.”

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni.

Reaction: What a strange season it’s been for the Rockets. Given the way they’re toying with Utah again and with Golden State looking in the next round, we should find out real quick if they really are better than last year.

“First of all, he’s a nobody.”

Joel Embiid on Brooklyn antagonist Jared Dudley.

Reaction: For the record, Dudley has carved out an 11-year career as a smart and dependable veteran. There are a lot of nobody’s who haven’t accomplished half of what Dudley’s done in his career. Praise be for this spicy series, and for Embiid’s brilliant Game 4, but come on, man.

The List

Consumable NBA thoughts

The first round of the playoffs can be a bit of a drag. It lasts just a little too long as series get stretched out over two, and even three, weekends. That does leave ample time for player storylines to evolve. Here are five who have made their mark.

Derrick White

When the Spurs chose White at the end of the first round of the 2017 draft, a murmur went up from the masses. There wasn’t much buzz about White, a 6-5 guard of some sort who played only one season at the University of Colorado after spending his first three years playing Division II ball. But if RC Buford drafted him, then you knew he was a player. Sure enough, White has been the breakout star of the first round combining tremendous defense with an athletic scoring touch. Imagine him and Dejounte Murray in the same backcourt next season … goodness.

Ben Simmons

Despite the Rookie of the Year trophy and the All-Star validation, Simmons is still something of an enigma. We all know he’s a tremendous player, but he also has a tendency to just kind of be there, a trait that was called out by Brooklyn’s Jared Dudley. After losing the opener to the Nets, Simmons responded with a triple double in Game 2 and was a monster in Game 3 while Joel Embiid sat out with his knee injury. Performances like that make you wonder if Simmons would flourish if he had control of his own team.

Kevon Looney

When DeMarcus Cousins went down with a quad injury minutes into Game 2 of the Warriors first-round series with the Clippers, all eyes turned to Andrew Bogut. The big man was brought back from retirement as Cousins insurance, but don’t overlook Looney who has quietly become a valuable rotation big man. Looney knows his game and his role. He’ll be a free agent this summer and he’s going to get paid.

Damian Lillard

Coming into this postseason, Lillard’s Blazers were coming off a pair of first-round sweeps. That seemed to set their ceiling as a good regular-season team that lacked the top-end talent to properly compete in the Western Conference playoffs. Lillard never bought into that line of thinking, and after leading the Blazers to a pair of wins over Oklahoma City, he has Portland poised for a long awaited postseason breakthrough. This series is still a long way from being over.

Pascal Siakam

Of all the changes the Raptors made in the offseason, one of the biggest was the internal development of Siakam who blossomed into a two-way force. Siakam was excellent through the first two games of Toronto’s series with the Magic, but he was brilliant in Game 3 with 30 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists. Regardless of what happens with Kawhi Leonard this summer, the Raps’ future in good hands with Siakam.

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