addByline("Marc D'Amico", "Celtics.com", "Marc_DAmico");
CLEVELAND – Less than three weeks after getting “an education” from perennial All-Star Carmelo Anthony during the preseason, Jaylen Brown passed his first test against perennial MVP candidate LeBron James Thursday night.
Class was in session beginning at 8 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena, when Brown stepped onto the court for the first start of his young and promising NBA career.
Brown, who was called upon to start at small forward in place of the injured Jae Crowder, stood facing the center of the court for the opening tip, with his hands on his knees, just to the right of the half-court line. Inches to his left, on the other side of that very same line, stood the greatest player of our generation, James.
Sixty-four minutes of NBA experience on one side.
Thirty-eight thousand, six hundred and 22 minutes, four MVP awards, and three NBA titles on the other side.
“It’s not a movie,” Brown remembered thinking at that moment. “This is real life.”
He continued: “You’re here. You’re in the NBA. Your feet are set, and now it’s time to make a name.”
That process is well underway, and it all began with that opening tip.
Not many players in the NBA can hold their own against James. Rookies? Forget about it.
Brown was a rookie Thursday night. That much is a fact. But he certainly didn’t look like one at either end of the court while facing off with James.
It took only 70 seconds for the rookie to prove to the reigning Finals MVP that this matchup would not be a cakewalk. It would instead be a battle.
At that moment, James posted Brown up on an isolation play from the right side of the lane and made a strong move toward the middle of the paint. Brown stayed right there with him, step for step, body on body.
That was the first sign that Brown was capable of holding his own against James and the defending champions. There were many more to come.
There was the driving, double-pump layup at the 6:41 mark of the first quarter that featured Brown driving past James and to the basket from the left wing.
There was the highly intelligent steal at the 2:03 mark of the second quarter, when Brown read James’ eyes 35 feet from the basket, dropped off of James, picked off his pass and took it the other way.
There were the three made 3-pointers and the 50 percent shooting from the field.
There was the ridiculous offensive rebound at the 7:12 mark of the fourth quarter, which featured Brown jumping right over former NBA rebounding champion Kevin Love to snag a one-handed board out of the air with his right hand, giving his team an extra possession at a critical juncture of the game.
There was the driving, and-one layup through Tristan Thompson – Cleveland’s starting center – at the 7:24 mark of the third quarter that gave Boston a much-needed jolt.
There was the 19-point, five-rebound, three-steal, two-assist, and one-block box score.
And then there was the play that Brown and Celtics fans watching the game will always remember.
James will, too.
With 1:27 remaining in the second quarter, Brown caught a pass from teammate Tyler Zeller along the right sideline of the court, directly in front of Cleveland’s bench. James was standing in front of him, in perfect defensive position.
Brown immediately went into a shooting motion, drawing James in to challenge a potential shot, but then took the ball hard off the dribble to his right. An agile James shifted his momentum just as quickly as Brown did, and the two were hip to hip on a one-way track toward the basket.
Just outside the right block, James used his right arm and hip to make contact with the left side of Brown’s body. At that moment, most NBA players, let alone rookies, would have flailed off track due to the force of James’ body. But Brown absorbed the contact and kept right on going.
Two steps later, the rookie rose into the air for a two-handed slam that sent eyebrows a raising and left James with a strong impression.
“He’s a strong kid,” James said after the game.
Asked of that specific play, Isaiah Thomas commented, “A 20-year-old going against arguably the best player in the world. He didn’t show no back-down.”
Instead, he rose up.
Brown may be 20 years old, and he may be only five games into his career, but he wants to play to a level that makes everyone forget those facts even exist.
“Even though I’m a rookie, I’m not playing rookie minutes,” he said. “So I’ve just got to come out and be strong and act like I’m a vet out there.”
He did so Thursday night, against the best player in the world. He did so to a level that inspired the best player in the world to seek him out after the final buzzer to deliver a personal message.
“I’m not going to tell you what I told him,” James told reporters. “If he wants to bring it up, that’s fine. But I think he’s a really good talent.”
Those words came out of the mouth of LeBron James, as he was talking about Jaylen Brown. An opponent. A rookie.
Yes, it’s safe to say that Brown, a studious young 20-year-old, passed his first test against James with flying colors.