Ime Udoka had difficulty understanding how Jaylen Brown started games against the Knicks and Hornets so ferociously, while starting so slowly in blowout losses to the Raptors and Wizards.
He used the phrase mind-boggling to describe the phenomenon in front of him.
“It could be a number of things,” he said. “He was out for 10 days as you mentioned … was banged up with the knee, but just got to find the juice from the start.”
Brown responded at practice on Friday, agreeing with Udoka’s mind-boggling assessment. He described the COVID after-effects he’s dealt with for the first time in full, surprised it hasn’t impacted his breathing as much as it did his recovery through the first five games. Some days, Brown felt like he played three games instead of one. Others, like Friday, he practiced fine.
The Udoka quote that made headlines led to a meeting between the pair on Thursday, during which Brown expressed the comment didn’t bother him. The team bounced back with a good practice on Friday and showed some of the most film they had all year with heavy dialogue about issues from the Wizards loss ahead of Saturday’s rematch.
“It’s mind-boggling to me too,” Brown said. “I was surprised that my body didn’t respond the way it normally responds. I’m not able to have that zip, that pop flying up and down the court. It just wasn’t there. I think that was obvious. I don’t think he was out of line or anything for that, so I gotta be better. I gotta get with our medical staff and figure how to get my body to the point where I recognize it where I feel normal. Like some days I feel fantastic, and then it’s like 2-3 days it takes my body too long to get back to feeling fantastic again and that’s an issue for me.”
Brown felt questionable hours before opening night as he jammed in a quick ramp-up exercise within days of tip-off once he cleared COVID protocol. Udoka said the team would discuss whether or not to push him immediately back to action, then determined it’d be ok.
He played and had one of his best games ever, scoring 46 points on 16-for-30 shooting in the overtime loss, where he commanded the offense with incredible pace. Then, Brown rarely asserted himself during the home opener, falling from 98 touches to 47.
Due in part to the quick ramp-up, Brown had a knee tendinopathy flareup and missed the Houston game. He exploded again for 30 points in a transition masterclass featuring maybe the dunk of the year over Miles Bridges the next night in Charlotte. On Wednesday, he largely disappeared again before Udoka called some late sets for him.
“Try to limit him trying to do it all by himself,” Udoka said of getting Brown involved on those nights. “And feel like he has to get himself going. Get him an easy shot. We called a walkaway and he got an easy mid-range pull-up there and tried to get him going there especially when Jayson went out in the fourth quarter. So a lot of different ways to do it, but just when you see it from the get go really grab him and talk to him and tell him you’ve got to carry the load tonight, especially when Jayson’s out. But calling his sets, getting him certain plays, and getting him in a comfort zone, maybe some free throws. That type of thing will help, because he did obviously start out very slow tonight.”
Udoka acknowledged the extenuating circumstances around the team and the role COVID, injuries and constant lineup turnover could be having. He’s also made sure not to let it linger as an excuse. He sees effort and execution fall short of expectation too.
Rebounding in the switch defense came up at practice, as he asserted the Celtics simply need to gang rebound, compete harder on the boards and overcome whatever strategic disadvantages switching could be casting them. He also readdressed his focus criticism from Wednesday’s shootaround, acknowledging that Montrezl Harrell’s tendencies were discussed multiple times before the game and the Celtics still allowed him to get his right hand free.
“We have a good understanding of each other,” Brown said of Udoka. “There’s a lot that goes into being with a new group, but at the end of the day we’re all men and we can all talk to each other and issues can get resolved a lot easier that way by communicating with each other rather than by hearing about it in the media. I think just communication, as we continue to improve, we’ll be fine.”