Boston Celtics, NBA Playoffs

The Celtics need Jaylen Brown to be a consistent, two-way force

Jaylen Brown isn’t the best player on a Boston Celtics team featuring two All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, but he may be the most important. 

The Boston Celtics advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals should come as no surprise, even within the volatile bubble that saw favorites like the Clippers and Bucks bow out early. The prolonged absence of Gordon Hayward was once considered a potentially damning blow, given the veteran’s positive presence on both ends of the floor, but Boston has nonetheless persevered.

Boston’s attack is multifaceted. Credit for the successes and blame for the struggles cannot be placed solely on one man’s shoulders — everything is connected, from the schematic adjustments from the bench to the performance on the court. Brad Stevens’ willingness to adapt his rotations and scheme for his players’ strengths has proven itself invaluable thus far. So too has the team’s versatile offensive attack, spearheaded by Kemba Walker’s pick-and-roll mastery and a supercharged Jayson Tatum, whose nuclear pull-up shooting and burgeoning intellect as a passer earned him a spot on the All-NBA Third Team at 22-years-old.

But while he may not be Boston’s best player, Jaylen Brown is inarguably one of its most important, with an up-and-down series against the Toronto Raptors and a brilliant Game 3 versus the Miami Heat (26 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals) demonstrating the effect he has on the team’s postseason ceiling. The Celtics overcoming a 1-2 deficit against the Heat and advancing to the NBA Finals does hinge on the offensive heroics of Tatum and Walker, as well Hayward returning to form after missing a month, but Brown’s role in their run shouldn’t go overlooked.

The variability of Brown’s offensive and defensive impact presents us with a give-take duality: Just as he’s able to give the Celtics so much on either end, be it complementary offense or stout on-ball defense, he’s just as capable of taking something away, be it a boneheaded decision with the ball or a blown coverage on defense.

When Brown is playing up to his own standards on offense, his impact is invaluable, a confluence of personal skill development and optimal responsibility allocation from Brad Stevens. Public perception of the 23-year-old is a bit skewed, with his on-ball impact getting a bit overstated. Though massive spikes in raw scoring (13.0 to 20.3 points per game) and efficiency (54.7 to 58.3 true shooting percentage) this season can be explained by his growth as a player, it’s his defined role as an off-ball complementary scorer that has enabled him to do what he does best — terrorize backpedaling defenders in transition, drill spot-up 3s, and attack the creases in the defenses that Tatum and Walker create with their on-ball gravity.

Statistically speaking, Brown established himself as one of the league’s prolific spot-up weapons this season, ranking third in spot-up possessions (315) and fourth in points scored off spot-ups (346) according to Synergy Sports, while also shooting an elite 48.4 percent (46-of-95) on corner 3s on high volume. He’s developed into one of the more dangerous wings to close out on in the league, due to his jumper and his ability to explode past defenders who give him the slightest angle.

Efficiency and consistency have been elusive thus far through 14 postseason games. Though he’s averaging a strong slash line of 21.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 stocks per game, he only ranks in the 27th percentile on spot-up efficiency and his hot-and-cold perimeter shooting (33.3 percent on 6.9 3-point attempts per game) is dragging down his overall efficiency (56 true shooting percentage). Nonetheless, his complementary scoring package has still been put on full display, along with proactive off-ball positioning (i.e., lifting out of the corner during pick-and-rolls to maximize spacing and free himself up for 3) and the addition of promising kick-out and drop-off passing reads.

Shots at the basket, whether in transition or on halfcourt slashes, have been somewhat hard to come by. Toronto’s amorphous defense did well to constrict Boston and limit leak-outs, but Brown capitalized on the few open lanes that he found, maximizing his end-to-end speed and downshifting into step-throughs and euro steps in transition and flashing notable strength on a number of extension layups in the halfcourt. And when he didn’t have to worry about penetrating the defense himself and cut/rolled to the basket, he threw down some spectacular finishes, including an ungodly poster on Toronto’s O.G. Anunoby.

Brown’s forceful slashing was a huge part of breaking Miami’s zone in Game 3, a facet of his play that cannot go unnoticed. He got to the basket in a myriad of ways: running in transition, operating as the big in Smart-Brown pick-and-rolls, attacking the weaker Duncan Robinson and barreling through his chest, cutting backdoor off of weakside pin downs, and exploding past defenders who closed out poorly.

Possessions where Brown is afforded extensive time with the ball do have diminishing returns, though. His rate of success as an on-ball creator this postseason — and, admittedly, his entire career up to this point — has been rather underwhelming (and, at times, outright disastrous). A mix of loose ball control, questionable vision and shot selection, and unspectacular feel for the game often culminate in pace-grinding isolations, blind drives into traffic, and missed or delayed passing reads. The game film is rough, but the numbers behind his play are even worse: Brown has scored a mere nine points across 22 isolation possessions (0.409 PPP), missing 15 of his 19 shot attempts and turning the ball over on the other three possessions, ranking in the 0th percentile this postseason per Synergy Sports.

His inefficiency as a scorer and decision-maker with the ball extends beyond isolation possessions, though, as he generally struggles with picking his spots and recognizing where a pass should be made (1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio). He can be a bit too willing to settle for difficult jumpers and cramped drives while freezing out teammates a pass or two away, whether it’s a simple swing, kick-out or entry. (Notice Marcus Smart screaming for the ball with Anunoby out of position in the first clip, only for Brown to settle for a pull-up 3 over Serge Ibaka.)

Take this fourth-quarter possession from (an otherwise awesome) Game 3 for example. Brown curls off of a Smart pindown designed to get him going downhill, but Robinson and Crowder (with the help from Smart’s failed flop) shut off any hope of a drive. Brown decides to retreat and break down Robinson off the dribble, attempts a little razzle-dazzle (notice the bobbled dribble), and careens into the paint for a hapless, off-balance floater. Whereas such an attempt would’ve probably fared better with a full head of steam (such as an earlier drive in the same game), he’s unable to create that same advantage from a standstill.

This isn’t to say that he hasn’t improved as an on-ball operator. He’s gained an understanding of how to leverage his strength to shed defenders and get downhill, his hesitation moves and crossovers are tighter and far more effective than they were when he entered the league (especially when he’s shifting speeds/directions on the move), and the flashes of post scoring and mid-range shot creation are coming with more regularity.

Boston’s development staff has evidently focused on pick-and-roll maneuverability for all guards and wings on the roster, with most ball-handlers displaying the ability to snake screens and put defenders in jail before spraying the corners or dribbling into drives and pull-ups. Brown is no exception here, as he’s found a lot of clean pull-up looks out of zipper sets and secondary pick-and-rolls, even manipulating defenders with rescreens on some possessions.

He’s even made real, tangible progress as a passer, too. He’s still prone to indecisiveness and the aforementioned lapses of judgment but Brown is making reads and throwing passes that he wouldn’t have made a year or two ago, and he’s doing it against two of the league’s best teams. There are encouraging signs in terms of technique (velocity, touch, placement) and vision and he’s made some truly mesmerizing laydowns after attracting rim protectors on his drives. The reads need to be quicker and more consistent — windows vanish as quickly as they appear, and he still misses several of them or makes passes a bit late — but his growth this year bodes well for his offensive ceiling, even if the playmaking is limited to complementary and connective passing.

Just check out one of his passes from Game 3, which was arguably the best playoff performance of his career and featured a playoff career-high of 5 assists. Brown catches the pitch-ahead in transition, recognizes that there’s no rim protector under the basket, attacks Gordan Dragić, gets cut off, and throws a gorgeous live dribble baseline bounce pass to the opposite corner! If Hayward swings it to Tatum, who’s trailing with an open runway, then Brown is likely getting rewarded with a hockey assist. That’s just not a pass Brown could make when he entered the league, perhaps not even a year ago.

But in a playoff setting where the intensity is at its peak and opposing coaches are scheming to pick on any and all weaknesses, such as Brown’s hit-or-miss on-ball play, minor shortcomings are enough to sink a possession and lose a game. This is all the more troubling on the defensive end, where Jaylen Brown has quietly been destructive away from the ball, despite his widespread reputation as a borderline great defensive wing.

Much of this reputation is built on him being a stout on-ball defender, which, for what it’s worth, is true. Brown is one of the more versatile defenders from a matchup standpoint, capable of squaring up with guards, wings, and bigs on any given possession. He uses every bit of his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame and 7-foot-1 wingspan to engulf smaller guards and stymie some of the larger wings and small-ball bigs of the league, much like he did in the second round against Pascal Siakam. Toronto’s All-Star forward only averaged 14.9 points on a .382/.125/.727 shooting split against Boston, with Brown doing a good job of sliding his feet and taking hard shoulders to the chest without flinching.

Yet, even with the commendable defense against Siakam and moments of point-of-attack brilliance against other perimeter players, his defensive impact is incredibly overstated. His off-ball play erodes his overall impact, shown in his modest -0.36 DPIPM in the regular season (third-worst on the team) and his on-off splits. The Celtics performing better on defense when he’s on the bench, to the tune of 3.2 points and 12.8 points in the regular season and postseason, respectfully.

While Brown is capable of giving the most on offense with his complementary scoring and fearless slashing, it’s the defensive end where he’s capable of taking the most away.

Brown’s matchup with Siakam in the series against Toronto exemplified this. Nick Nurse is a defensive tactician of the highest order, distorting the geometry of the floor by throwing out zones and boxes and triangles and every other orientation conceivable by man, but his creativity on the offensive front leaves much to be desired. He deserves some criticism for how he deployed Siakam against the Celtics: More often than not, Siakam was sequestered in the corner, face-guarded by Brown, with minimal efforts to manufacture actions where he could attack off movement. The other look was a heavy diet of spiritless post-ups where Siakam was asked to create something out of nothing.

Nurse could’ve incorporated more flex and split cuts and other off-ball actions to put his All-NBA forward in favorable positions. However, sticking Siakam in the corner for minutes at a time was a tactical trade-off that served a purpose. The following clip illustrates the reason why. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol run a side pick-and-roll against Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, with Brown covering Siakam in the strongside corner, in perfect position to stunt/dig on Lowry’s drive…

…but he just doesn’t. This wasn’t a one-off incident, either. Nurse wasn’t just sticking Siakam in the corner — he was also sticking Jaylen Brown in the corner, placing a significant burden on him to instinctively rotate to the rim to cut off drives and x-out on shooters, tag the roller in the pick-and-roll, and stunt/dig on ball-handlers who were in his vicinity. Perhaps I’m giving Nurse too much credit, and this was merely a natural development and not some intentional plan, but the Toronto series nonetheless exposed Brown’s fallible instincts defending away from the ball.

Brown’s defensive lapses are varied, but all of them are tied to spatial awareness and defensive feel. He has a tendency to watch the ball regardless of his spot on the floor, giving openings for cutters and shooters to break loose, which is exacerbated by poor positioning and body angling. He’s not an anticipatory player on that end (though he’s racked up more steals in recent games, capitalizing on lazy passes thrown near him), which consequently requires him to react to actions quickly, but many of his closeouts and rim rotations come a beat late. And, worst of all, Brown tends to hyper-focus on his assignment, face-guarding his mark and ignoring (or just not sensing) the surrounding actions and removing him as a helper.

And those lapses weren’t going to suddenly disappear against Miami, with Eric Spoelstra coaching and Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragić, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro feasting on off-ball actions with Bam Adebayo facilitating from the elbows.

Everyone disliked that. (Seriously, everyone. Check the reactions of his teammates on the court and Brad Stevens on the sideline.)

Brown’s off-ball lapses have hurt Boston, with the team being a not-so-nice 6.9 points worse on defense with him on the floor against the Raptors and Heat, but there have been encouraging developments in the last six or so quarters to suggest that his shortcomings can be mitigated. Originally tasked with defending Jae Crowder, Stevens made sweeping changes to the team’s defensive assignments for Game 3, hiding Walker on Crowder and giving Brown the Robinson assignment so that Smart and Tatum could take on Miami’s on-ball scorers.

The adjustments worked wonders. Walker was successfully hidden off-ball, Dragić and Butler had their worst games of the season, scoring a combined 28 points on 34.8 percent shooting, and Brown did a passable job staying attached to Robinson while chasing him around screens, where his tendency to face-guard his mark actually made sense. Gordon Hayward’s return to the lineup gave way to Boston’s “Best Five” lineup — Walker, Smart, Hayward, Tatum, and Brown — which enabled the Celtics to switch handoffs and screens, with Brown blowing up several actions by himself.

Jaylen Brown was absolutely incredible in Game 3, impacting the game on both ends of the floor while playing within himself. He played a pivotal role in shattering Miami’s zone and disrupting the flow of its motion offense, serving as a real driving force in Boston’s 117-106 victory and punctuating just how much he’s able to give in terms of winning basketball games. Recovering from a series deficit against a talented, well-coached team is no small task, meaning Brown still has his work cut out for him, with his two-way consistency being a key factor in the Celtics advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in 10 years.

The Boston Celtics need Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to continue initiating the offense, for Marcus Smart to continue hitting bonkers 3-pointers and making his typical Winning Plays™, for Daniel Theis to protect the interior and screen like hell, and for Gordon Hayward to return to form. But Jaylen Brown is no mere bystander on this team — they need his very best on both ends, too, and he’s proven how much he can swing possessions, games, and the fate of a playoff run with his two-way play.

Next: Meet the NBA Bad Takes Hall of Fame class of 2020

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