Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Jaylen Brown drops first 50-point game of career, joins Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in Celtics lore

Everything has been a struggle for the Boston Celtics this season. It was no different on Sunday night, when they had to rally from a 14-point deficit in the final four minutes of regulation before squeaking past the seven-win Orlando Magic 116-111 in overtime. 

Jaylen Brown was the hero, if such a thing exists in barely beating the Magic. 

Brown wound up with 50 points on 19-of-29 shooting, including 5-for-10 from 3-point range and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line. It was the first 50-point game of Brown’s career and just the seventh in Celtics history. 

Add in Brown’s 11 rebounds, and he joins Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Jayson Tatum as the only players in franchise history to put up that line. 

Brown did almost half his damage late, scoring 24 of his 50 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. He was relentless in attacking the rim and hit a huge 3-pointer late in overtime. 

Brown has struggled to shoot of late, hitting just 33 percent of his 3s and 40 percent of his shots overall in his last 10 games prior to Sunday. On Wednesday, he went 1-for-13 from 3 and needed 36 shots to get his 30 points in a loss to the Clippers. Boston is below .500 and still very much seems like a lost team that only randomly stumbles upon anything that resembles an identity. 

Yes, the Celtics, like pretty much every team, has been playing with a depleted roster. Brown has missed 15 games himself. Robert Williams didn’t play on Sunday and has missed nine games. Al Horford has missed 10. Tatum hasn’t played since Christmas. Sunday was Dennis Schroder’s first game since December 22. I suppose you could call these viable excuses. 

But this is a team that has just not added up to the sum of its considerably talented parts for a season and a half now. Jayson Tatum is in the middle of the worst shooting season of his career. The Celtics are not a good or even particularly willing passing team; their 22.7 assists per game registers 21st league-wide. 

The stagnation gets worse in late-game situations. Boston is bottom 10 in clutch-time offensive efficiency, where they rely heavily on contested, mostly self-created jumpers. All told, the Celtics only take 23.3 shots per game inside the restricted area, the sixth lowest total in the league, per, and only two teams isolate with a higher frequency. They are a team trying to win individually. It has not proven to be a successful model. 

The good news is the Celtics do have lineups that do major damage. When Brown, Tatum and Marcus Smart play with two big men, Robert Williams and Horford, the Celtics are beating opponents by 18.3 points per 100 possessions with a monster 99.1 defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Take out Horford and sub in Grant Williams, who is shooting 45 percent from 3, and Boston, albeit in just a 46-possession sample, is blistering opponents by more than 43 points per 100. That’s not a reliable sample, but you can see the makings of these postseason lineups if Boston can get there and be healthy at once. 

That, of course, has been the problem. You look at the Celtics’ players and just think they should be a good team, if not a really good one. You want to believe in them. But with or without Tatum and Robert Williams, it shouldn’t take a 50-piece from Brown to beat the Magic, who have the second-worst record in the league and were without Cole Anthony, arguably their best player, in their own right. Right now, the Celtics are not a good team. We’ll see if they concede to that and become sellers at the trade deadline, or if they think they can still make a run with the core of this unit intact. 

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