The Celtics' young depth was going to be tested when Gordon Hayward went down with a broken hand early last month. The 29-year-old was arguably playing the best basketball out of anyone on the roster before his freak collision with LaMarcus Aldridge on November 9th and his absence would increase the pressure on a largely inexperienced roster, putting more weight on its top-heavy starting five.
Nearly one month later, the end is near for Hayward’s absence. The Celtics have managed to keep the ship afloat without him, improving to 8-4 in his absence with a 113-92 victory over a weary Heat squad at the TD Garden on Wednesday night to improve to 15-5 on the year. The victory put the C’s back into a tie for the second seed in a very competitive top of the East despite playing more than half of their games (12 of 20) on the road to begin the year.
How exactly have the Celtics managed to hold down the fort since Hayward has been sidelined? A number of pieces have been essential over the past month, perhaps none more than Jaylen Brown on the wing.
During Hayward’s absence, Brown has not only taken advantage of the added opportunity, but he’s also flourished with it. After scoring a season-high 31 points on Wednesday night, the 23-year-old leads the team in scoring (21.1 ppg) over the 12 games Hayward has missed despite ranking third on the team in shot attempts (16.4). He’s been superb shooting the ball (49% FG, 41% 3-pt) during that run while also topping the team in rebounds per game (7.2) and finishing second in free throw attempts per game (4.2).
“When Jaylen gets going, I think he’s the X-factor for us,” Kemba Walker said after Wednesday’s win. “When he has it going he definitely gives us a lot more options – and he’s been playing well all year. I’m excited for him. He’s been putting in a lot of work to improve on his game each and every day and it’s just showing on the court.”
As teams like Miami put the majority of their focus on slowing down Walker (28 points) or Tatum (19 points) by blitzing them in the pick-and-roll, Brown has repeatedly made opponents pay for putting their attention elsewhere.
“They’re blitzing Kemba and blitzing JT,” Brown said. “So (I'm) just being aggressive out of that because they’ve gotta form three on the backside, and I’m just trying to be aggressive.”
“He’s obviously been really good,” Brad Stevens added. “He ended the road trip well with his play in the second half of that Denver game. I thought that's kind of carried over. He's just been solid on both ends.”
The end result has Brown averaging 19.9 points per game a quarter of the way through the NBA season. Just 34 players in the league have crossed that 19 ppg threshold and only six of them are shooting 49 percent or better from the field with that high scoring volume. Those names? Devin Booker, LeBron James, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Anteokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan and Brown.
All of those guys are max contract players besides Brown and every single one will be an All-Star this year besides potentially DeRozan (and Brown). Unlike the Spurs veteran (who doesn’t shoot 3s and is a liability on D), Brown is flirting with his career-high by knocking down 38.2 percent of his treys while attempting over five per game.
Throw in some improved free-throw shooting (71 percent), versatile defense and playing for one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and the argument can be made that Brown has just as strong a case as Jayson Tatum to be a first-time All-Star in the Eastern Conference at the quarter pole of the season.
There are certainly a number of set locks already for East All-Stars, particularly among the big names. A quick look at the shoe-ins based on production and/or reputation: