BOSTON – Jaylen Brown has instructed himself to be the good soldier for the Celtics this season. It’s not the role he necessarily envisioned for himself coming off last year’s breakout postseason. It’s not the role he certainly wants to confine himself to as a No. 3 overall pick who has stared down the greatest players in the game, on its biggest stages, and walked away with a wry, confident smile.
But it’s the role he has been assigned for much of this year as Celtics coach Brad Stevens has looked for any way to find a cohesive mix among a team that for long stretches of the regular season was less than the sum of its star-powered parts.
Now it’s a role the coach has once again demanded out of the player who, perhaps, has sacrificed more than any on this team during this season of occasional discontent. Brown’s back-to-back 3-pointers turbocharged a 13-0 run that got Boston within 99-98 with 4:50 left in the fourth quarter of a 116-108 loss to the Orlando Magic Sunday night, but when asked about the 13-point effort off the bench in Brown’s return from a back injury after the game, it was the coach who quickly pivoted to the other end of the floor.
“We need him to be a great defender for us as we enter the playoffs,” the coach said. “And everything else will take care of itself.”
Brown has heard it before. So when he heard it again Sunday night, the player who twice put up 30 points in playoff games against the Milwaukee Bucks last year, and who did his best Hagler-Hearns impersonation trading haymakers with LeBron James in the first quarter of Game 2 of the conference finals, pledged to be the soldier the Celtics charge him with being as this year’s playoffs dawn this weekend.
“Got to be a lock-down defender,” he agreed. “Because that’s what this team needs. So I’ve got to be really be good at that. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Brown has pushed the mute button on himself for most of this Celtics season. Quietly confident as a rookie two years ago, he let his personality run free late last year as one of the foremost faces of the team’s unlikely run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. But this season, perhaps feeling burned by carefree comments turned against him at the season’s outset, the thoughtful and highly articulate Brown has largely elected to keep his thoughts to himself with the media.
He has picked his spots when it came to pushing back on Kyrie Irving’s repeated admonishment of “the young guys” amid the team’s midseason struggles. But Brown has mostly kept the swagger that lit up reporter scrums, and sent shock waves of social media adrenaline through Celtics fans, last year under carefully protected wraps.
“Same mentality,” he assured Sunday night. “I’ve still got a chip on my shoulder. It never changes. I don’t think for anybody else it changes either. We’ve got to come out, win, and play basketball. That’s it.”
— Scott Souza (@Scott_Souza) April 8, 2019
Much like Irving, Brown sees himself as more than just an athlete who can put a ball in a basket. He has spoken at Harvard and MIT, been an NBA ambassador in Africa, risen rapidly in the ranks of the National Basketball Players Association, and boasts that he is the only freshman to ever take a master’s-level class at the University of California-Berkeley.
Also, much like Irving, as a younger player he has found himself shoved into the shadows in his career by older veterans – first, Isaiah Thomas, now Irving, figuratively, and Marcus Morris, literally – who either subtly, overtly or occasionally condescendingly, let him know he still has much to learn in this game and this life.
The bravado widely embraced when he vowed his team had “no fear” of the King James and his crew before last year’s conference finals unleashed a backlash when he lightheartedly predicted “five or six championships” by the time he turns 28 years old in a taped Bleacher Report segment that was released while these Celtics were struggling to win regular season games against bad teams early this year.
Brown has played his best in his three seasons in Boston when he’s allowed that unabashed swagger to shine through. He has done an admirable job this season keeping his head down and steadily improving as he recovered from an early season hand injury as he dutifully acclimated himself to a secondary role. But the flash of electricity he unleashed in the fourth quarter Sunday night when he drilled back-to-back 3-pointers, and caused havoc with his energy and athleticism, is a reminder how Brown has the potential to be so much more for the Celtics in this postseason.
While they will surely need his disciplined defense, they could also use a shot of that swagger if they are to push this playoff run to its limits.
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