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A Tale of Two Browns

In Game 3, Jaylen Brown showed up offensively when no one else would. Despite that, a scoring performance to remember was a night to forget.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It was indeed, as Jaylen Brown put it postgame, “just one of those games.” No matter how you look at it, really, the statement fits. For Brown, who scored a playoff career-high 40 points and had a remarkably efficient shooting night, it was one of those nights. Everyone has them; no matter the shot difficulty, you can’t seem to miss, no matter what you let fly.

But for the Boston Celtics, to which Brown was actually referring to when he called his team’s 109-103 Game 3 loss “one of those games”, it was the worst kind of outing. The kind where you come out flat, disengaged. The kind of night when turnovers seem to find new ways of occurring, even though the old, ugly ways don’t seem to die either. It was one of those games you never, ever want to have as a team, least of all in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was one of those games, the kind of game a team wishes to forget, yet will undoubtedly lose sleep over until — better yet, if — they respond anew.

“We didn’t come out with the right intensity, or we didn’t come out with the same intensity as them as a unit, and it showed,” Brown continued. “They came out all connected with urgency. Defensively, we gave up a lot of points. Defensively, they were more physical than us, and it showed in the first half especially, and then we tried to dig ourselves out in the second half and fell short.”

The story of the game will likely be how porous Boston was defensively to start, especially in contrast to Miami’s suffocating approach to guarding Boston’s best scorers. Jayson Tatum was rendered ineffective from the jump. Marcus Smart recorded an up-and-down affair on the heels of his historic performance in Game 2. Shots for other players, be it Al Horford, Grant Williams, or Payton Pritchard, just didn’t fall at the start of the game. It was a hole Boston had seemingly no hope of climbing out of.

For whatever reason, Miami’s blanketing defense didn’t impact Brown the same way it took his teammates away. Perhaps that was part of the plan — take the team away and let one guy cook, sort of like what Boston forced Milwaukee to do late in the team’s second-round series. Whatever the Heat intended to do with Jaylen Brown, his scoring was unmoved.

His 40 points, 25 of which came in the second half, with Boston in desperate need of a cauterizing agent to stop the bleeding, were hardly just a postseason career-high. It was just the fifth time in Brown’s playoff career that he surpassed 30 points, and just the third game this season in which he topped 40 (he had 50 against Orlando in January and 46 on Opening Night against the Knicks). On top of all of this, he became the first Celtic in franchise history to score 40-plus and shoot 70-percent or better from the field in a playoff game. At times, even with the game relatively out of hand, it seemed as though Brown might just go ahead and shoot the Celtics back into it. (He also pulled down nine rebounds, for what it’s worth).

“I’m trying to be aggressive, trying to make a play for our team,” Brown said of his offensive effort. “We were down 25. We was playing with a lack of emphasis. We need to play with some heart, some aggression. I tried to come out in the second half especially and just be aggressive and just ignite our team.”

Then again, with every high high with Brown, it seems there must be a remarkably low low. The Celtics turned the ball over an embarrassing 24 times — 23 traditional turnovers plus one shot-clock violation — and the Heat turned those into 33 points; by comparison, Boston scored nine off Miami’s nine TO’s. Brown led the team in individual giveaways with seven, his first coming late in the first half and his six others all coming within the span of the final two quarters (five of them came in the third).

He also recorded just one assist, leading to a 0.14 assist-to-turnover ratio on the night. Were that abhorrent number his season average (a relative impossibility, thankfully, but still), it would rank him 548th out of 605 players. If you were to apply the proper filters, like minimums for games played and minutes per game, he’d still float somewhere around the 300s. Again: Brown’s usage is far too high for this sort of measurement to be remotely plausible over the course of an 82-game season. But nights like these — “just one of those games”, if you will — are a haunting reminder of what’s possible.

Brown put it succinctly after the game: “I did a sh## job taking care of the basketball tonight.”

This isn’t new information, that Brown can’t take care of the ball. For the better part of this season, it’s almost seemed as though he lubes up his hands with Vaseline before putting it on the floor. He recorded 2.7 turnovers per game this season, which tied the career-high he set last year. That has shot up to 2.9 in the playoffs, not quite on par with Jayson Tatum’s 4.3 per game in the postseason, but still enough to average the 15th-most per game out of 124 qualifying players in the postseason.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of his lackadaisical nature with the ball in his hands is that not all of Brown’s turnovers feel all that traditional. NBA.com categorizes its stats, particularly shots and turnovers, with attributes like “fadeaway jumper” or “offensive foul turnover”. Just one of Brown’s giveaways in Game 3 — his first — was categorized as a “bad pass.” The six others? All “lost ball turnovers,” an umbrella term that serves to encompass Brown’s ill-advised attempts at splitting the defense, dribbling into triple teams, or simply bobbling the ball the moment he puts it down.

What makes watching Brown fumble away possession after possession the most frustrating isn’t merely the fact that he’s turning it over. Turnovers happen; it’s worth reiterating that Tatum averages 4.3 per game in the postseason, but is often forgiven due to his 35-point performances on a near-nightly basis. With Brown, what’s infuriating is how unforced most of his turnovers are, especially when juxtaposed with how impactful he can be on the drive. He noted that he “got to the basket whenever [he] wanted to” on Saturday. For the most part, that’s true; seven of Brown’s 14 made shots were categorized as “driving” shots. But he also gave the defense the ball whenever they wanted it, an inexcusable offense that further fueled his team’s ever-increasing deficit. His teammates didn’t help, but he was the primary culprit.

Brown, however, is aiming to “do better.” How? By “just being stronger, driving [at the defense] and being aggressive, getting to the basket... doing what I do, but being stronger when I get in there.” He went on to note that the refs let a lot of stuff go in Game 3. “I feel like it’s two hands on me all the time. I never get those hand-checking calls. But I don’t make excuses,” he said, moments after making multiple excuses.

“Some of them led into turnovers, some were unforced, some were from fatigue,” Brown added of his drives, in particular. “But you don’t make excuses,” — again, moments after offering a list of excuses — “...you get back and you be better for the next game. I’m aggressive, and I’m going to continue to be aggressive.”

If he’s aggressive without reckless abandon, the Celtics will be beneficiaries. Brown’s ability to get to the rim and finish through contact has become one of his game’s most reliable calling cards. But that ability is directly countered by his sloppy ballhandling and errant drives that tend to result in a turnover on what feels like half of his possessions. There has been plenty of discussion already about Brown needing to spend his summer shoring up his handle; last night, that discussion evolved into a bevy of reactions about how Brown had delivered one of the worst 40-point performances imaginable, and jokes about how he must be “the best player in nba history who doesn’t know how to dribble.”

At this point, it isn’t much of a joking matter. 40-point career nights are fun when they end in a win, but when you actively take away from your team’s winning effort just as much as you give to it, you’re bound to remain stuck, running in place. Right now, that’s where the Celtics find themselves. And Jaylen Brown, despite deserving credit for his almost heroic offensive outing, deserves a significant chunk of the blame for the end result.