Brown changed the game against the Rockets. That he’s not yet 100% makes that development feel even better.
Though Marcus Smart is often pinpointed as the Celtics’ heart, it might be more appropriate to say he’s the player on the Boston Celtics with the most visible heart. Forget his sleeve; he wears it on the front of his jersey, a figurative replacement for the Vista Print advertisement that lies just below the left shoulder. Better yet, he’s more so the team’s motor than he is a representation of its heart, even if his pace isn’t always the most sustainable. Or realistic. Or safe.
Jaylen Brown, on the other hand, now that’s where you find the heart of the Boston Celtics. Without him, they’re a different team — and no, not just a worse one on either end of the floor, but a different one in schematic makeup, emotional framework, and all the things you cannot see. To me, Jaylen Brown feels a bit like the editing process to a reader; what you end up seeing is the final copy, after it’s been scribbled over, rewritten, given a facelift, and then rewritten again. The person behind those edits, though; they’re the real heroes. They’re the real heart of the operation. (Shoutout to editors everywhere. Also, I’m sorry.)
Brown played in his first game back from a hamstring injury last night, and though it came against an opponent that would benefit from further referring to itself as the bane of James Naismith’s existence — as opposed to, you know, the Houston Rockets — his fingerprints (and, to keep with the analogy, his rewrites) were all over the game.
Sure, the Celtics won in the end 108-90, but while that appears resounding, the game did feel a bit too close for comfort at times. Boston only led by five at halftime, and at one point during the third quarter, the Celtics looked as though they might just pull off the thing they seem to do best: relinquish control of a double-digit lead.
Thankfully, Brown felt just enough like himself to evade the damage.
He scored 10 points in just over one minute to push the lead to 22 in favor of the good guys, thus changing the entire tone and complexion of the game. Without that burst from Brown, the headline on NBA.com this morning doesn’t read “Brown returns, Tatum scores 30 as Celtics thump Rockets,” but “Celtics avoid Rockets’ upset bid in Boston” or worse, “Rockets shock Celtics; Boston suffers another second-half collapse.” Those hypothetical headlines are of the variety that causes a supporter to hyperventilate before they’ve even blown the steam off of their morning coffee. Brown’s heroics, if you will, allowed Celtics fans another day to hold off on hitting the panic button.
“Man, I love the game and I believe in our unit, so I was definitely itching to get out there,” Brown said after dropping 19 points in 23 minutes in what I hear people are now calling “The Great Return ©.” (Redditors, man.) “I don’t want to miss any more games than I have to. I definitely want to be out there going to war with my teammates but at the same time making sure I’m not putting myself at risk down the line.”
“Early in the game it looked like he took a little time to get warm,” head coach Ime Udoka said of Brown’s first action since the Nov. 4 win over Miami. “As much as he’s worked and rehabbed and played with some of the coaches, it’s nothing like the actual game out there. He said he still doesn’t feel ‘normal’ normal but to have him back in that third quarter and see what he did was a great sign.”
Despite itching to get out there, Brown was transparent in admitting that he hardly felt like himself athletically. He noted that he “felt good going all the way up until the game, then I had a little bit of tightness. We’ll see how it feels tomorrow and keep building. I wasn’t super happy with how my body felt. We’re working through it.”
Maybe he isn’t thrilled with how his body felt, but it’s hard to complain about his output. His 10-point flurry in the third quarter began with an otherworldly coast-to-coast solo finish; I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t see him holding back from his typical explosiveness on the euro step to create space, but that hardly undermines how simply silly this is.
That he perhaps seemed to move a bit more gingerly than what we might otherwise expect from a player as athletic as Brown is no surprise, given that hamstring injuries for basketball players are no joke. One false move and suddenly, you’re rendered as useless as a running back without a working right knee. Not to mention, Brown’s history of strains is nothing to sneeze at. But Brown looked okay, and that in and of itself is a positive development.
“The bigger thing was just for him to get kind of his legs underneath him, feel confidence moving on the court,” Al Horford said of his teammate postgame. “Timing, some things defensively, he’ll start to pick those up again. It is different when you go from not playing to playing, but I felt like he responded well and he had that third quarter that was a really nice stretch.”
Brown’s night beyond the 19 points in limited action wasn’t the flashiest; three rebounds, a steal, and a block don’t necessarily call for a confidence boost, but they also shouldn’t take away from how great it must feel to have Brown back in the lineup, contributing in any way. Whether he takes a while longer than expected for him to work his way back to full strength or he’s his All-Star caliber self again come Wednesday night against the Nets, it will happen in due time. Better to slow this roll than to have things derail due to unforced errors on the part of the team (and its medical staff, for what it’s worth).
“How can you mend a broken heart,” Al Green once asked? Well, Al, I’d start by telling him to apply a heating pad to that hamstring of his. He’s too valuable to be anything less than 100 percent, though if last night’s outing was any indication, he can be valuable no matter his status. The Celtics can survive without Brown — they proved it, going 5-3 in his absence — but he’s vital to their long-term success. Being his full self is a big part of this team’s ability to keep up that good work.
“I don’t want to put too many expectations on this group but we’ve got to come out and play some good basketball like we’ve been doing,” he said. “I’m looking forward to putting everything together.”