BOSTON — If you so desired, you could compile a highlight reel of Boston Celtics players and coaches screaming at Jaylen Brown this season. It felt like nary a game passed without someone (loudly) informing Brown about a missed rotation or defensive miscue. Marcus Morris got so mad about one instance of less-than-desired intensity that he shoved Brown during a timeout in Miami and the video served as an encapsulation of Boston’s frustration-filled 2018-19 season.
Nobody is spared from tongue-lashings in the NBA — heck, cameras caught Brad Stevens giving Kyrie Irving some grief for a lack of defensive focus heading to a timeout during Wednesday’s Game 2 — but it was fair to wonder why Brown so frequently had teammates pointing out his errors.
The answer, teammates and coaches often noted throughout the season, was that everyone simply holds Brown to a higher standard because they know how impactful he can be on the defensive end.
The Jaylen Brown Redemption Tour had been rolling along for a few months now but it’s really been thrust into the spotlight in the playoffs. Brown, who was unfairly maligned for much of Boston’s early-season woes and the way the original starting unit fizzled, has been one of the team’s more consistent presences since the start of the new calendar year.
But having elevated to a starting role against the Pacers, Brown has upped his defensive intensity and has his coach gushing about his offensive decision-making, all of which has helped Boston to a 2-0 series lead.
"I just think Jaylen has shown tremendous growth,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said on a conference call before the team flew to Indiana on Thursday. "And here’s a guy that, early in the season, got a lot of flak for a small sample size where he struggled. Then he had a really really good year after that. He just kept working, kept getting better. He’s worked hard on improving things that he needed to improve.”
Brown previously drew effusive praise from Stevens for the percipient kickout pass in the final minute of Game 2 that led to Jayson Tatum’s go-ahead 3-pointer. Brown, who had missed a driving layup that could have tied the game with 1:50 to play, was racing in transition after Al Horford’s game-saving swat of Bojan Bogdanovic when he encountered traffic near the rim.
Instead of trying to muscle home a difficult layup, Brown got the defense to commit then sent a bullet to the corner where an open Tatum canned the decisive triple.
“He had [the ball] in transition, he had to beat a point guard, he had to beat him with his left hand, his off hand, he had to raise up, get his eyes to the rim, he draws [attention], and he whips a pass across the court and puts it on a dime to his shooter in the corner,” Stevens gushed again on Thursday. "That’s a great pass for a lot of guys -- for everybody, that’s a great play by anybody.
"And I thought that pass was very indicative of [Brown’s progress]. Not only the physical delivery but also the wherewithal in that moment. [Myles] Turner had been really effective at the rim and for Jaylen to make that play was great. Then, next play down, Jayson gets the drive and Jayson’s got a chance to pull up, and he dumps it off [to Gordon Hayward for a layup]. I just thought those were really really good plays by those two guys late in the game.”
For his part, Brown shrugged off the decision to pass. He said it was the easy choice when block-maestro Turner came over with help. But Brown knew how smitten his coach was with the decision.
“[Stevens] was just smiling and said that was a helluva play, a big-time play,” said Brown. " I said to him, ‘You probably thought I was going to lay it up, didn’t you?’ He laughed, he said, ‘Nah, I knew you were going to make the right play.”
When the Celtics lost Smart to a torn oblique in the final week of the regular season, Brown was the obvious choice to elevate to his starting role. Still, Stevens left the door open to examine other options. Brown has made a strong case to stay in that spot, playing inspired defense against Bogdanovic in Game 1 and making key plays in Game 2.
Brown’s defensive numbers weren’t as glitzy in Game 2, a product of both teams’ offense finding a better rhythm than the Game 1 rock fight, but the NBA’s tracking data suggests Brown’s covers scored just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting overall. Slightly concerning is how the Pacers scored 27 points as a team in the 16 possessions that Brown defended Bogdanovic (with the wing scoring 5 points on 2-of-4 shooting, individually). But Brown’s struggles weren’t for a lack of effort.
And Brown recognizes that, particularly in trying to help fill Smart’s void, his play will be judged largely on his defensive intensity.
"That’s where series change, games change,” said Brown. "I’ve got to hang my hat on defense, whether it’s boxing out, guarding 4s, 2s, some of the ugly possessions. We have guys who can score the ball. We need guys who can grit their teeth and make plays and make things happen in the fourth quarter.
"Guys like Gordon Hayward, Kyrie, Jayson Tatum – we have a lot of offensive firepower. But we have to make sure we’re sound and solid, diving for loose balls and getting rebounds, boxing out and [being] physical.”
At the start of the season, Brown lingered near the back end of ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus stats. In mid-November, Brown ranked 417th out of the 430 players that had appeared in games to that point. By season’s end, Brown was middle of the pack, elevating to 234th out of 514 total players. He even finished in the positive for defensive plus/minus and his RPM wins — an estimate of the number of wins each player contributed to his team’s total — was plus-2.52, or identical to Marcus Morris, who drew All-Star buzz after a strong first half.
Brown has been an incredible luxury for the Celtics the past two seasons. Last year, with Irving and Hayward sidelined by injury, Brown led the Celtics in scoring while the team surged to Game 7 of the East finals. This year, with Smart out, it’s Brown trying to give the team a defensive jolt.
His teammates probably won’t stop screaming at him any time soon. But only because they know how impactful he can be. And they know they need him to reach their loftiest goals this postseason.
And the Jaylen Brown Redemption Tour has potential to help spur the redemption tour the whole team is embarking upon after an underwhelming regular season.
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