BOSTON — Jaylen Brown sprinted past Bojan Bogdanovic in transition, reached the paint and when Marcus Smart’s bounce pass arrived, it slipped through his fingers as Brown stared down at both hands in disbelief.
It’s harder to believe Browns’ production hasn’t met his expectations during a sensational start for the Celtics’ offense. Smart received the turnover on that play, an early break for Brown against Detroit following a frustrating seven-turnover night on Monday in Memphis.
Brown wouldn’t drop another pass, receiving extra playmaking repetitions, committing zero turnovers and riding a wave of passes from teammates to 30 points on 11-for-19 shooting in the Celtics’ 128-112 win over the Pistons. Interim head coach Joe Mazzulla adjusted Brown’s role entering this season, shifting playmaking toward the guards and placing off-ball activity on his stars. It led to a MVP-level start for Jayson Tatum and an uneven one for Brown, even while both share scoring and shooting output as evenly as they ever have in their careers.
“(I’m) just being aggressive,” Brown told CLNS Media on Wednesday. “This has been kind of a different style of basketball we’re playing here with Joe, so I’m just adjusting, trying to be aggressive and also be myself at the same time. For me, I’m just trying to find that balance, but 10-11 games in, it’s a long journey. I have all faith in Joe, I have all faith in our team, so as we continue to grow, I’ll figure it out and see where my spots are. I think I’m a better player than I’ve shown in these last 10 games, but we’ve been winning, so we’ve got to keep that up.”
Mazzulla got Brown the ball in the second quarter last night, bringing back his old role running the second unit for a moment to find a rhythm. Brown committed 32 turnovers with only 28 assists entering Wednesday, mirroring his adjustment to playmaking one year ago. It took time.
Brown acclimated slowly to the switching scheme on defense too. Ime Udoka noted it came less naturally to Brown, who thrived focusing on one assignment. That tunnel vision plagued Brown at both ends, often driving into space on offense, hitting the brakes and lacking a backup plan early this season.
Boston’s offense and personnel gives the players multiple sets if the initial action gets blown up. Al Horford stressed the Celtics can do a better job assisting Brown in those spots, like Derrick White did here for Tatum, running a strong side pick-and-roll with Luke Kornet to free Tatum on the weak side. Killian Hayes initially denied Tatum the ball in the corner.
“(Our passing) is much better and I think a lot of that has to do with our spacing,” Horford said. “Guys get into the right positions, giving the guy that has the ball the opportunity to make those plays. At times, I feel like when those turnovers or things happen, it’s because we’re not giving them outlets and things like that. We’re doing a better job, coach really stressed that, he showed us enough on film and I feel like we’re all starting to understand the places that we need to be as outlets.”
Horford provided one in the first quarter, positioning himself behind Jalen Duren as the big man moved into help position on Brown’s drive. Brown hit Horford underneath with a wraparound pass.
Brown assumed ball-handling duties in the second, bouncing around Horford’s screen for a pull-up jumper and getting off the ball quicker to let Sam Hauser attack a collapsed defense late in the shot clock.
Boston’s offense, No. 1 in the league, depends on pace, quick decisions and layers of passing. The Celtics don’t want to shoot mid-rangers, only five teams attempt fewer per game. That hasn’t naturally suited Brown as he begins the year 33.8% from three while attempting 7.4 per game. Tatum and Malcolm Brogdon typically initiate those plays, with Smart, White and Horford as connectors. Grant Williams, Brown and Hauser play finisher.
Horford emphasized that Boston’s players need to trust the ball will get back to them in the flow of the offense, and that equally benefited Brown and Tatum, who have averaged 20 shots each per night and scored 30 points in the same game three times this season to reach Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal status.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have each scored 30-plus points in the same game 15 times as teammates. That is the 3rd-most by any pair of teammates over the last 30 seasons, trailing only Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant and Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant. pic.twitter.com/ndwDJqnrUT
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 10, 2022
“The emphasis, for me, has been more off-ball, setting screens, being a roller, playing more off-ball,” Brown said. “Sometimes it feels better to just get in a rhythm, then when the ball comes to you, you can be the one making a play and be the one creating for others, that helps you get going. (I’m) just trying to find that balance, being aggressive and continuing to find different ways to be impactful in the game of basketball. Joe, from day one, has challenged all of us and that’s a challenge for me. I’m gonna continue to learn the game and find different ways to impact the game.”
Brown found that rhythm crossing up Cunningham for a signature one-handed slam, leaving the second-year star and his Pistons in the dust, down 61-47 after two more makes in succession. His value as an isolation scorer matters when he heats up, but Boston also wants him to impact the game without the ball in his hands.
When Malcolm Brogdon exited with hamstring tightness, Brown helped Tatum create an open three with some high-low screening action in the left corner instead of moving on the ball. Smart hit both Brown and Tatum closer to the basket for easy looks in the second half and finished with another 10-assist game.
Mazzulla reiterated the importance of Smart and the back court’s passing, while Brown is setting 3.0 screens per game for Tatum, creating 1.42 points per possession for the Celtics. He’s averaging 1.0 screen assists per game, up from 0.1 last season.
Brown’s touches are slightly up and time of possession is down, with an average touch length of 3.03 seconds compared to 3.3 last season. He’s dribbling less and the Celtics have scored more on his touches (0.41 points per touch over 0.39). Those are encouraging numbers given Brown’s career-worst shooting efficiency from the field.
He’s drawing 5.2 free throws per game, converting a career-best 84.6%, and Brown remains a strong finisher inside at 63.6%, often the tone-setter in attacking rim protecters like Evan Mobley. At his best, he’s catching passes and finishing closer to the basket and the Celtics made sure to find him there late to meet Tatum at the 30-point mark.
The cohesion Brown and Tatum build will be crucial when teams begin double-teaming Tatum, like the Cavaliers did late in their wins over the Celtics. Boston got outscored by 20 points through its first 10 games with Brown and Tatum both on the floor (+25 with Tatum on, +5 with Brown on).
Some of that goes back to defensive lapses the team started to clean up into November. Brown guarded the pick-and-roll well, prevented handoffs and communicated well with Tatum on that end as the Celtics posted a 107.4 defensive rating over the past two wins.
“All five of us (starters) got All-Defensive First (Team) votes last year,” Brown said. “That’s something that I think we should try to do again.”