As the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers lined up for the first tip in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the consensus belief was that LeBron James was going to coast to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance.
Al Horford then tipped the ball to Jaylen Brown who immediately took the ball straight to the basket for a quick score. Both the Celtics and Brown haven’t looked back, taking a 2-0 series lead back to Cleveland.
Brown has punished the Cavs relentlessly through the first two games of the series, putting his team in great shape to advance to their first NBA Finals appearance since 2010. He’s averaging 23 points and 7.5 rebounds on 53 percent shooting from the field and 46 percent from three through the first two games of the series.
Only a mere six years old when LeBron was drafted, Brown is living up to his statement after he himself was drafted: he was “ready to rip someone’s head off.”
During the regular season, the Cavs gave up the fourth most transition points in the NBA. The Celtics are clearly taking full advantage of the Cavs’ poor transition defense by having Brown push the ball up the floor whenever he can.
That’s at least seven instances where Brown scored or got fouled by pushing the ball, and you can see how he doesn’t come in contact with a Cleveland defender until he hits the paint. At that point, with Brown’s quickness, strength and athleticism, it’s too late to stop him from scoring.
By getting up the floor as fast as he is able to it creates mismatches. LeBron is probably the only player that can consistently guard a player like Brown, but when he can force a mismatch by pushing the ball it makes things that much easier to get to the rim.
This doesn’t only open up scoring opportunities for Brown. It also breaks down the Cavs’ defense quickly by getting penetration early in the shot clock. Cleveland isn’t very connected on the defensive end as is, so Brown has the chance to find wide open shooters trailing the play like Marcus Morris in one of the clips above.
Seeing Brown’s relentless attitude on the floor further exemplifies how fearless he is of any player in front of him, including James himself. It’s easier said than done to challenge LeBron on both ends of the floor, but Brown has shown since last year that he is ready to go toe-to-toe with the best player on the planet.
DeMar DeRozan, a four-time All Star in the most important playoff series of his career is playing the kind of defense on LeBron that looks like he’s just hoping for a miss. Then you see Brown get into James’ air space to make it as difficult as possible to make the turn-around jumper. After that, he competes for space in the post instead of just letting him get position, which forces Kevin Love to pass it to JR Smith late in the shot clock.
The key for the Celtics defending LeBron has been to make things uncomfortable. Whether it’s throwing different defenders at him or getting as physical as possible, Brown embracing the challenge of taking on the match up has certainly paid off.
Boston hasn’t made it easy on James, which has led to him forcing the issue at times. He has committed 13 turnovers in the first two games of this series compared to eight turnovers in the second round.
Brown performing well against LeBron isn’t a new development either. In his first NBA start last season as a rookie, Brown scored 19 points in a loss to Cleveland. His stat line was indeed impressive, but it was the way he went right after James as a first year player that stood out the most.
Ahead of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Brown told reporters how he wasn’t scared at all at James, saying he was “just a regular guy to me,” and that, “there are bigger threats in my neighborhood than LeBron James.” Brown scored 19 or more points three times last year including the postseason and two of them came against Cleveland.
There wasn’t much Brown could do about stopping James last year as Boston was dominated in a five-game series. But now, with a more versatile roster and another year of experience under his belt, Brown has a great chance to solidify his place among the league’s elite wing players by eliminating LeBron from the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Videos from Tomek Kordylewski