Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have been asked to take on a lot of responsibility this year for the Boston Celtics.
With starting point guard Kemba Walker missing the start of the season, and Jayson Tatum falling victim to the NBA’s health and safety protocols and a reported positive COVID-19 test, other players needed to step up offensively.
And thus far, they’ve done that.
In Friday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Brown tied a career-high 42-point performance with nine rebounds and three assists. Smart, meanwhile, supported that scoring with 20 points and seven assists.
But with all that offensive pressure now placed on Brown and Smart — the two players who make up the heart and soul of Boston’s defense — the other end of the ball is suffering.
“Our identity has always been, as a Celtics team, we hang our hat on the defensive side of the ball,” Brown said in his postgame media availability.
“We still have another level to go to and we’ll get there. A lot of that is on me. I’m one of the defensive leaders and captains on this team, and I have to be a better leader on that side of the ball. I’ve got to be better and we’ve got to be better.”
He’s not wrong about the defense. Boston now has dropped three straight games, and uncharacteristically, rank 21st in defensive efficiency across the league.
But after matching a career high in scoring when he also recorded a steal, block and five defensive rebounds (nine total), it’s hard to put all — if any — blame on Brown.
“We’ve got to help them out, you know,” Walker said after the game of Brown and Smart. “It’s going to be hard, obviously, for (Brown) to do both at a very very high level. Obviously tonight he killed it offensively. I wish we could have helped him better on the opposite end.
“Jaylen is playing. He’s hooping on both ends. I know he’s taking a little bit more but there’s only so much he can do.”
Brad Stevens seemed happy with Brown and Smart’s effort, even if the players themselves weren’t.
“I think the bottom line is when you’ve got guys out, when you’ve got guys on minutes, (Brown is) going to have to do more, and Marcus is going to have to do more,” the Celtics coach said of the guards’ increased workload. “And I thought Marcus did a lot of good things. Jaylen was obviously fantastic scoring the ball tonight with a lot of attention against really good defenders.”
Still, it wasn’t good enough for Brown. And with how well he actually did play, it’s great to see him have that mentality.
“We haven’t been good enough this year, we’ve got to be better and a lot of that is on me,” Brown said. “I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to lead these guys defensively, along with Smart, and we’ve got to get after teams.”
Brown knows the Celtics have the tenacity they need to be great again, the issue is consistency. Boston needs to get back to getting after it, making guys uncomfortable, rebounding more on defense and hounding ball handlers.
“Really, just making people’s night’s a living hell. I know I can do that and be great offensively at the same time. It just takes a level of conditioning and the mentality and the focus and I know I’m capable of it,” Brown said.
“It’s a challenge and I’m up for it. I can do more and I will do more.”
Here are some other notes from Boston’s loss to Philadelphia:
— Stevens now has used the same quote twice in the last two days: “I just don’t see us being sustainably competitive.”
Mostly he was referring to the defense, and mentioned his disappointment with how they played in multiple-big possessions in the final quarter when Boston let a close game get out of reach.
“We just have to be better, we have to be more detail oriented. Everything has to be crisper, everything has to be tighter, everything has to be done to perfection even more so when the other team is locked in,” Stevens said.
“Too haphazard in my opinion. You know, hey, we had guys out, they’ve got a really good team. They’re really physical. They hurt us with physicality in both games this week. But whenever you step between the lines and you have a chance to win, control what you can control. Win or lose, if we get over the hump or not in this game is not the point. The point is we have to do our jobs better.”
Stevens acknowledged that while the Celtics have not yet played a game at full strength this season, that’s no excuse. No matter who is available to play on any given night, the team has to put itself in position to win.
“You give yourself a chance no matter who’s available, who’s not available,” Stevens said.
“Obviously we want to have a full group and you want all of your guys that you can go to. That’s why everything else is so important. Everybody’s got to be in their right spots all the time. Everybody has got to be spaced appropriately. Playing with the right connectivity defensively. We’re not going to win a game with the group that we have giving up 122 points.”
Walker knows this to be true, and took complete blame on behalf of the players, who the point guard said has not done the best job executing on the coaching staff’s game plans.
“If we’re going to keep playing the way we’ve been playing then it’s just not going to work,” Walker said. “It hasn’t been good, it hasn’t. It hasn’t been to the level that we know we can play at.”
— Rookie Payton Pritchard has been a pleasant surprise this season, but the Celtics got a scare from the guard in the first quarter.
Brown fell into the side of Pritchard’s knee at the end of a play on offense, and Pritchard went down holding his knee. He needed assistance from medical staff to be helped off the court, and Stevens didn’t have much of an update after the game.
“I didn’t ask what the next steps are,” Stevens said when asked about Pritchard after the game. “I would assume that he’s out in the next couple of days. I don’t know beyond that. I’m sure there’s tests and stuff set up for tomorrow.”
Pritchard has played in all 14 games for Boston thus far, averaging 8.3 points, 2.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds.
— Back to Boston we go. The Celtics return to action Sunday at TD Garden, where they’ll host the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tip off is at 7 p.m. ET.