Big-scoring nights will always grab the headlines. Especially when the player doing the scoring is stepping into a new role in the absence of a teammate. When that player is Jaylen Brown, after the week he’s been through, it’s only fair that we sit up and take notice.
Yet, as the Boston Celtics defeated the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, March 26, Brown was showing more than just his ability to convert on his scoring opportunities. With Tatum on the sidelines, a significant portion of the team’s offense flowed through Brown’s hands, and he didn’t skip a beat.
“I just think he’s always had the ability to score,” Mazzulla said after the game. “But now he has the ability to break defenses down, to understand how the defense is guarding him, to anticipate where the help is coming from, and then to make the right play. And so, to me, his scoring is obviously huge for us. But his decision-making and his reads have gotten a lot better. It’s a credit to him because he works at them every single day.”
When watching Joe Mazzulla’s press conference after the game, it was his discussion about making the right reads which stood out. It’s easy to construe reading the game as making the right pass, but it goes deeper than that; it’s knowing when to screen when to cut, and when to pressure the defense to create an opportunity elsewhere on the floor. You might be reading the game, but you’re righting the next line.
For the most part, this article is going to focus on Brown’s improved court vision when it comes to reading a defense and making the right pass. However, before we get into that, I wanted to highlight a screening action that stood out to me as a solid example of reading the defense and adjusting your approach.
The above possession appears to be set up to get Brown curling out of the corner courtesy of a stagger action involving Derrick White and Al Horford. However, Devin Vassell reads the play and looks to deny Brown when coming into the second screen. Rather than fight through an action that has already been bamboozled, Brown simply shifts his approach and flows straight into a screen on Vassell, allowing Horford to pop out to the corner and shoot the three.
It’s also worth noting that Zach Collins was sagging off the initial stagger action, anticipating Brown getting downhill and either attacking the rim or hunting his favored mid-range spot. As such, once Brown becomes a screener, and the action evolves into a screen-the-screener play, Horford is left open on the perimeter to take his shot.
Ok, the possession didn’t result in points being added to the board, but the process was solid and showed considerable growth in Brown’s ability to read, react, and implement a new plan on the fly.
Now let’s get into some of the passing reads.
There was a time in Brown’s career when he would get the ball in a transition opportunity like the one shown above, and the jets would turn on. Sometimes, Brown would move faster than he could dribble, leading to a live-ball turnover. Other times, he would run himself into trouble or get to the rim and have difficulties finishing due to the pace he was traveling at.
Not now, though. Instead, Brown controls his pace, allows his teammates to get into position, and then utilizes his scoring threat to find the open man. If you watch how the Spurs' defense looks to defend in this clip, you can see their sole focus is on stopping Brown from doing his thing, thus leaving Marcus Smart wide-open in the corner.
Here’s where the read comes in. Not only does Brown spot Smart, but he flows into a quasi-shooting motion with his shoulders, engages the defense before firing a well-timed skip pass that results in an early-offense three.
How many times have we seen Malcolm Brogdon pull off a pass like that this season? It’s clear that Brown has been learning from his latest teammate and understands the urgency he places on opposing defenders when hitting the restricted area. Not much to analyze here, but it was worth adding to the mix just to show the growth in his passing.
We’ve all grown accustomed to Brown faking a lift out of the corner before turning on a dime and back-cutting his man at pace, only to receive a pocket pass from Smart before finishing the play with a dunk or punctuated lay-up. Yet, in the above clip, we once again see some growth in Brown’s ability to process what’s happening around him.
At the beginning of the play, Brogdon’s relocation from the corner drags Collins under the rim, while Derrick White’s cut on the weakside ensures Romeo Langford follows and the corner is left unguarded as the Spurs look to shut down Brown and negate the presence of Robert Williams on the post.
Usually, in this instance, Brown would settle for the foul call and look to get his points at the charity stripe; however, with Brogdon (one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA this season) wide open, Brown hits him with the bailout pass to once again create an easy three.
Brown’s strength and athleticism will always ensure he’s a threat on straight-line drives, especially since he’s begun utilizing the bully-drive more and more this season - where you continually bump your man to create space en route to your spot.
There’s no doubt that Brown and Langford know each other’s games well, having played together during the latter’s time with the Celtics, which is probably why Langford was able to continue shading Brown away from the middle.
A hard dig from Sandro Mamukelashvili forced an early pick-up from Brown, and once again, he opted to make the pass rather than hunt the foul call. Timing his pass perfectly to find Horford camping in the weakside corner for an uncontested bucket.
The final play I will show is an entry pass into Robert Williams, who is being fronted in the post and boasts a significant height advantage. However, while the pass looks easy from our view, it still requires significant confidence from Brown, as there are three defenders in the vicinity of where the ball is traveling and any one of them could snag a deflection. Of course, it helps when you already have a 22-point lead.
I’m sure there are multiple other instances of Brown’s improved ability to read the court from the Spurs game, and while I likely haven’t included them all, that only goes to speak to the growth we’re seeing happen in front of our very eyes. It was around late December in 2021 when Tatum sat out a four-game stretch, and Brown struggled with the additional ball-handling duties. Now, we don’t even blink an eye when he’s asked to assume a larger role as an initiator.
So, while his scoring exploits will deservedly be front and center of the conversation, the other aspects of Brown’s game were also on show, and that’s a significant reason why he’s currently being lobbied as a potential All-NBA candidate — he deserves it.