BOSTON — A few hours before the Celtics tipped off with the Warriors, Jaylen Brown called Brad Stevens and told him he couldn’t play. He was reeling from the news that his best friend, Trevin Steede, had died unexpectedly in Atlanta.
The two had met at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga. Brown was the high-profile transfer, and he was taking Steede’s place in the lineup. An introvert, Brown sat by himself at lunch until Steede came over and invited Brown to join him at his table. They had been best friends ever since.
“I couldn’t get my thoughts together,” Brown said. “I couldn't gather myself.”
Stevens told him that was fine. There are more important things than basketball, and lord knows the Celtics have had more than their share of tragedies the last few years. Then Brown took a call from Steede’s mom.
He called Stevens back and told him, “I want to get this win. I want to be there for my teammates.” Stevens told him they’d be there for him.
“Everybody was kind of in shock,” Brown said. “But I knew coming into today that he would have wanted me to play. It was hard getting my thoughts together, but after talking to his mom and his family, they inspired me to come out and play. I wasn’t in any shape to come out. I didn’t want to leave my room. But they inspired me to come out and play. And I came out and played in his spirit today.”
There is no graceful way to transition from the emotions of real life to the hyperdrive reality of the NBA, but there was Brown leading a third-quarter comeback against the best team in the world. First he knocked down a jumper, cool as can be. Then he drained a pair of deep threes in transition. Suddenly, it was a ballgame.
This is what the Celtics do. They hang around, and then suddenly they figure out a way to win yet another game. The constant in the equation has been the emerging play of at least one of their young players. Some nights it’s Jayson Tatum. Others it’s Terry Rozier or Marcus Smart.
This night belonged to Brown.
“Our young guys are fucking awesome,” Marcus Morris told me. “They’ve been poised, very confident. I don’t expect anything less. (Brown’s) aggressive mentally. Very strong. He just keeps going.”
By the end of the third, Brown and the Cs had erased a 17-point deficit. The fourth quarter was a rock fight, which is just what they wanted. The Warriors put the Celtics in the bonus early, and Boston took advantage getting to the line a dozen times en route to a 92-88 victory that extended its improbable winning streak to 14 games.
“It was a great game for us to understand that it’s not only going to be 2017 NBA, 125-to-121,” Steve Kerr said. “You’re going to run into teams like this that are really physical and tough.”
The scoreboard differential was found on the free-throw line, where the Celtics held a 33-12 advantage. Those numbers were duly noted both on the court and after the game by the Warriors. “We committed a lot of silly fouls,” Kerr said. “They were just tougher and smarter than we were tonight.”
The real difference for the Celtics was on the defensive end of the floor. Those 88 points were the fewest the Warriors have scored in a game this season. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson missed 24 of their 32 shots. That patented Warrior run that blows the game open? Never happened. Not against this defense.
Earlier in the week, Kerr called the Celtics the future of the Eastern Conference. We can all see it coming, but what if it’s happening sooner than we all realized? What if the Celtics are becoming the favorites in the East, LeBron James caveats be damned.
“They’re playing the best right now in the East,” Curry said. “Obviously until they beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row, so we’ll see. But I hear the weather is great here in June.”
Locker room quote context is everything, and Curry was playfully sparring with an aggressive international reporter. But it’s not that absurd a thought.
If the Warriors do return to Boston in June for the finals, it will be in large part because of players like Brown, who has emerged in his second season as a cornerstone player. While he’s not smooth like Kyrie Irving or polished like Tatum, Brown never stops competing.
He can look awkward on one possession and brilliant the next. That doesn’t faze him. On defense, he took his turn guarding Kevin Durant after KD took Tatum to school in the first quarter, and he helped to hold him in check.
The 21-year-old Brown is growing up right before our eyes, not just on the court but off it as well. Often described as precocious, he’s a thoughtful and resilient young man who’s coming into his own as person, not just as a player. He has a lot to process right now, but he seems to be handling everything as well as anyone could expect.
“Much respect for him, because that’s difficult and he was hurting,” Al Horford said. “He is hurting. It was one of those things where I didn’t know if he was gonna play tonight, but it just speaks of his character. Some people deal with it different ways. Some people need to get away. He was able to put all that aside and play, so I’m very proud of him.”
After the game, Irving wrapped Brown in a hug and presented Brown with the game ball. He told him it was for Trevin.
“I told him before the game, the physical presence that you lost, that was just the physical realm,” Irving said. “The energy that your best friend was carrying is still with you, so don’t you ever forget that. He showed it tonight. He was playing for not only the Boston Celtics, but he was playing for his best friend. You’ve got to commend the man for doing that. I was nothing short of proud of him.”
Asked if he thought his friend would have been proud of his performance, Brown sighed deeply.
“Yeah,” he said. “I can hear him now.”