BOSTON – As his opportunities grow and his challenges expand, Jaylen Brown is welcoming the fight.
“I’m going to be ready to guard whoever,” Brown said after squaring up against LeBron James. “If it’s the waterboy, I’m guarding him too. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Brown was all smiles when CelticsBlog ran into him at midnight at the practice facility on the eve of Game 1, basking in the glory of the first pick in the draft and being less than 24 hours away from playing on the biggest stage of his life.
Cut to Wednesday and Brown was as locked in as ever.
“The game plan was just to be ready,” Brown said. “They send me clips, probably an hour’s worth of clips, on LeBron. They send me a lot of Kyle Korver, J.R. (Smith). I mean, I was ready for everybody. Today it just felt like I was on LeBron a little bit more. Next game it might be somebody else. Whoever it is, you just gotta be ready.”
Brown faced a series of challenges in both guarding LeBron and being responsible for bringing the Celtics the energy coach Brad Stevens said was zapped out of them early. He was one of their most effective defenders on LeBron, which isn’t saying much, and reinvigorated their transition game when the half court offense was suffocated by Cleveland’s athletic and physical perimeter defense.
“I'm ready for any challenge that anybody throws at me,” said Brown. “We just gotta be better as team. Come out a little bit more and we'll be fine."
He'll play an even bigger role in that better start. The Celtics always preach punching first and admitted after they got smashed on the nose by Cleveland in this one. Brown’s presence helped balance the team after getting knocked into the ropes, so Stevens is inclined to lean on him even more, saying he will play a large role in the series. Potentially even a start as soon as Game 2. That would mean guarding more of the seemingly unhuman LeBron, which shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it’s his obligation.
“He laces his shoes up like I lace mine up,” Brown said of LeBron. “Trying to make it tough for him, I feel that’s my job.”
Brown looked to take the intiative, generally fighting through screens to stay with LeBron. When he was abole to stick in front of him, he showed he was up to the task.
Jaylen did a decent job on LeBron. After giving up two layups as the pivot help, he did a good job feeding him to higher help on this drive pic.twitter.com/kx2iN75lu4— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 18, 2017
Although LeBron got this bucket due to a Marcus Smart goaltend, this was an ideal example of handling a LeBron drive. Brown gave LeBron one step of space and got his hands on him at the free throw line, ensuring LeBron couldn’t elbow past him. Jaylen fed James into Olynyk above the charge circle, forcing a difficult floater that was rolling off the rim when Smart grabbed it. This was one of the few times the Celtics actually handled LeBron well with early contact and pushing him toward tricky shot angles.
“He played well,” Jae Crowder said. “I think when we went small, he was a key factor in being able to switch and play against everybody on their team on the perimeter. I feel like he will be key moving forward in Game 2. I think he brings a lot of athleticism to our team, and we’re going to use it against these guys.”
Stevens has been tougher on Brown than any other player in the Celtics rotation this year, limiting minutes and praise while being quick to pull him from a game after a mistake. But as the Wizards series started to drag on, Stevens gave Brown a little more leeway. It paid off huge as Jaylen did everything imaginable to help win Game 7 Monday. Stevens exhibited even more patience with Brown after a few errors early and was rewarded handsomely.
"I thought he played well, but I think it also was very evident that athletically he's just a special athlete,” Stevens said. “He can do things that other guys can't do, whether it's offensive rebounding or getting to the basket or whatever the case may be. We need some of those things, so I would expect him to continue to play a large role for us in this series."
This was the right idea to make TT be a playmaker.. right up to the point Jaylen Brown forgot the ball is the most important thing pic.twitter.com/UsgqLu0AiG— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 18, 2017
Brown still struggles with help defense, as was most obvious when he stepped out of the way on this Tristan Thompson drive to recover to his man J.R. Smith hiding in the weak-side corner. Jaylen assumed Al Horford would rotate over to defend the dunk, but forgot the first rule of defense is to stop the ball in the paint.
He later made a mistake trying to hand off a switch off of LeBron after James had already started his drive, catching his teammate off guard and allowing an easy attack to the basket. There were times in defensive transition where he tried to attack the ball instead of sticking to his assignment, requiring redirection or recovery by Al Horford.
On his tremendous hustle play where he grabbed his own missed layup and then grabbed another rebound, he still ended up throwing it away for a bad turnover.
Brown made a good read on RJ to get to the rim and made two great rebounds, but his kickouts are pretty telegraphed and he paid on the 2nd. pic.twitter.com/gj5mlRnPJp— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 18, 2017
But those few mistakes were drowned out by his hustle and his aggression with the ball. When the ball would swing to Brown and LeBron would look him off, he drove with confidence and comfort. He used his eurostep while slowing down after penetration, allowing him to shoot over defenders without committing a charge. It led to him going 5-for-7 from the field while being the only player on the Celtics with a positive differential that played during Cleveland’s first half dominance.
Brown’s bounciness and hawkishness are vital in this series and he will work through the mistakes as he gets more reps. He is savvy for such a raw rookie and is adept at reading the defense to get a lane. On this ATO under the hoop, he sees LeBron zoning the weak side and waits for his time to slip into position and strike.
Great read by Brown on this play, waiting for LeBron to forget his weak-side zone assignment and sneak right under him. pic.twitter.com/0g4XZQl3sa— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 18, 2017
Brown is learning how to attack closeouts, making the read while the ball is coming his way instead of during a shot attempt or pump fake. He has a good eurostep already and is able to slow it down in the paint to not run out of control into the defender.
Brown is attacking closeouts so much better than even a few months ago when he started getting minutes. Has his plan ready on the catch. pic.twitter.com/gsQfEtt3qH— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 18, 2017
He can go with a crossover or hesitation too, reading the defender’s position to make the right move. While he struggles to pull this off against big wing defenders, he can bully mismatches like Kyle Korver.
Jaylen used just about every move in his arsenal tonight, including a hesitation to get ahead of Korver's hips and reach the basket. pic.twitter.com/sgDNWRuSYv— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 18, 2017
But if he is going to play major minutes in this series, his work will come off the ball. He missed his only three tonight, something they will need plenty of. But he showed he can be used as a roll man in the high pick-and-roll with Thomas against smaller lineups. Stevens really wanted to abuse Jaylen’s mismatch with Korver, even baiting Korver into a double on Thomas to set up a Brown rim roll. Brown showed terrific footwork to slip around Tristan Thompson for an easy finish.
Brown screen to bait Korver into double was one of the few times Celtics took advantage of the high doubles. Great footwork by Jaylen here. pic.twitter.com/RPDsPQ4SH7— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 18, 2017
In what was otherwise a failure for Boston, there was something to build off of with Brown. Stevens is showing him trust and recognizes his skill set is vital in this series. The growth for Brown is coming quite literally overnight.
"Is there a better development than getting a chance to play in the playoffs and playing in the second round, Game 7, and making huge plays, then winning Game 7?" Stevens said before the game. “To me, going through the ups and downs of a year, we usually just talk about development in terms of minutes, but going through the ups and downs of a year, especially when you're a young guy, and then taking all those good things and applying them in a game with that kind of intensity is invaluable."
Brown went through all the ups and downs in Game 1, but it will be on him to keep driving forward as the Celtics look to dig out of this deep hole in Game 2.