In the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Jaylen Brown was a wide-eyed 20 year old coming off the Boston Celtics bench. He played 17 of Boston’s 18 playoff games, missing only Game 5 in the first round against the Chicago Bulls. Over those 17 games, he averaged 12.6 minutes per game off the bench and scored only 5.0 points per contest. After making 34 percent of his three-pointers in the regular season, he hit just 5-of-23 from behind the arc in the postseason. The rest of his counting stats were unremarkable as well. But, despite the rough go, the groundwork was set for a breakout season.
It’s often said young players hit a rookie wall somewhere around the halfway to two-thirds point of their first NBA season. Some rebound from it (see: Jayson Tatum in 2018), while others struggle to find their legs the rest of the year. For those rookies who are fortunate enough to play past the regular season and into the playoffs, they face an animal unlike anything they have ever seen. Everything in the NBA Playoffs is ratcheted up a few notches. Defense gets tighter, so offensive execution has to be better. All eyes are on players, so the stress and importance of not only each game, but each possession is amplified.
While acknowledging the requisite “small sample size!” alert, Brown has been a completely different player in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. After just two games, he’s already over halfway to surpassing his total scoring output from last year’s postseason with 50 points scored this season vs 85 last season. Brown has also knocked down 7-of-17 three-pointers in the first two playoff games.
The stats tell one glaringly obvious story: Brown has stepped up in his second run through the playoffs. But this is also a case where the stats and the eye-test match. Take for example this layup attempt from Game 6 versus the Washington Wizards:
Brown catches the ball in the corner, fakes the pass and drives confidently to the basket. However, once he gets there, he hesitates against the contest from less-than celebrated rim protector Jason Smith. Brown ended up double-clutching and shoots on the way down and misses.
Now, take a look at this one from Game 1 against Milwaukee in this playoffs:
Similar type of move. Brown drives the right baseline. He’s not met by a rim protector like in the first clip, but there is also no hesitation. He goes right through Tony Snell. It’s a perfect example of both his quickness to get to the spot and his strength to finish through contact.
Brown’s confidence in his jumper is off the charts right now. This is a jumper from Game 3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers last season:
This shot comes in a semi-transition situation, which generally results in a good look. As you watch, it isn’t that Brown isn’t open, because he is. But he’s open because LeBron James lays off him. Part of that is James’ knowledge of time and situation. Brown pulls up from 18 feet and shoots a long two off the dribble with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. That is shot James and the Cavaliers will give him all day long.
A year later, this is the shot Brown gets:
He has Giannis Antetokounmpo on him to start the play. He works a pick and roll with Al Horford and John Henson jumps out to defend. Brown wisely keeps his dribble alive, forcing Henson to not only hedge, but to actively switch. Brown then takes one hard dribble to the right baseline, where he love to attack the rim, as seen in the earlier clips. But look at the other three Bucks defenders: all are in or at the paint, plus Henson takes away the baseline. Last year, Brown would have either forced the baseline drive and likely turned it over or took a wild and contest layup. Or he takes a rushed and contested long two. This year? He takes his time, despite the shot clock being under 10, and dribbles back to the arc. Now he has Henson in a spot where Henson doesn’t want to be. Henson won’t close too tight, for fear Brown will go by him on the bounce. Brown simply rises and drains a three-pointer.
One other thing with the second clip? This shot snapped an 11-0 Milwaukee run. Brown has always had the confidence to take big shots. Now he’s making those big shots. In addition, Brad Stevens and his teammates have put their faith in him that he’ll deliver. This is in part out of necessity, due to all the injuries. But the bigger part is that Brown has earned that faith by stepping up time and time again this season. Second year growth is expected, but this level of improvement has been a pleasant surprise. More importantly, Brown playing this well in the playoffs really bodes well for the future.