As the Celtics prepare to take on the Chicago Bulls in the first round, they’ll be doing something that they haven’t done since 2011; play as the favorites. As the one seed the Celtics have the luxury of having home-court throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. They also won’t have to take on the Cavaliers again unless they meet up in the Eastern Conference Finals. But as we know, when it comes to the playoffs, matchups are the greatest indicator of success.
Versatility has been the Celtics bread and butter since Stevens has led the team. Guys like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart have gained a reputation as some of the fiercest perimeter defenders in the league. But there’s a catch. A player-type that has worked as a kind of kryptonite for the Celtics defense. You know it, too big for Avery Bradley, too quick for Jae Crowder. Demar Derozan, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George fit the bill. It doesn’t get talked about much because hey, can anyone really “stop” these guys? Probably not. But it’s possible to contain them with a player who has the right combination of strength and speed to bother them. And for the first time in a while the Celtics have just the guy. Without further ado, welcome to the postseason Jaylen Brown.
When the rookie started the season, I thought there was a chance he might be underwhelming defensively. From the games I watched at Cal, he looked like a player who tended to think too much on the court and played too far back when defending on-ball. Those are habits that he could break because of his athletic gifts, but something that he needed to learn quickly if he wanted to get rotation minutes on a winning team. He started off slow, at times painfully slow to the point where you could literally see Brown thinking on the court before he moved. But slowly things started to click, and Brown is now quietly one of the best defenders on the team. In 77 games this season, Brown has forced players that he defends to shoot 4% worse when he’s guarding him, the team’s defensive rating slightly decreases when he’s on the court, and the team’s steal and block percentages slightly rise.
What separates Brown from the other defenders the Celtics has is his unique ability to guard quick guards and his strength that allows him to guard bigger players.
Being able to defend some of the shiftiest guards in the league allows Boston to play big lineups such as the lineup of Smart, Brown, Crowder, Horford, and Johnson; a unit which has a +40.2 net rating. (Don’t be surprised to see that unit in the playoffs despite the fact it's barely played together in the regular season). Brown’s defensive versatility not only allows the Celtics to create favorable individual matchups, but gives the Celtics more size on the boards, a well-known team weakness. In lineups where the Celtics are making a conscious effort to play Brown in big lineups, I’d be willing to bet the impact on the boards would be substantial.
The Celtics will have the task of going up against Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade, some of the best mid-post operators in the league. After an up and down season last year, Wade went into the postseason and put up 21.4 ppg, 4.3apg, and 5.6rpg along with 52.2% shooting from three. And Jimmy Butler has gone absolutely nuts this past month, averaging 27.4ppg, 6.6rpg, and 5.6apg. The good news? In matchups against the Celtics, Butler has only been held to 36% shooting from the field and has been held to only 20.3ppg. And Wade has had similar struggles, averaging a plus-minus of -16 against the Celtics and only shooting 38.1% from the field. In Jaylen Brown’s 18mpg against the Bulls this season he has posted plus-minus of +5.2, has shot 47.4% from the field, and the team has posted a defensive rating of 102 when he’s on the floor against Chicago, equivalent to the third-best defense in the league.
When Marcus Smart asked by our own Jared Weiss about what being in the playoffs for the first time would be like for Jaylen Brown, his sentiment was one that many shared:
In his first year, Brown will already be tasked with filling a defensive hole that some of the opposing team's best players occupy. If the road to 16 goes through Boston, then the Celtics will need the best from their lottery pick. That test begins today.