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Jaylen Brown’s Got Juice in These NBA Finals

Though he’s still prone to a costly mistake or two, Brown’s athleticism and physicality has made all the difference for the Celtics

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you forget that the Warriors aren’t the fastest, most explosive team on the court anymore, let Jaylen Brown remind you. He’s here to wall up Stephen Curry and poke away his dribble; to chase down a Klay Thompson cut and fly in from behind to spike his layup attempt out of bounds; to drive right at—and right through—Draymond Green on his way to a runner. He’s here to make a great opponent act its age.

For all the adjustments that can and will be made in these NBA Finals, there’s only so much that can be done to account for Boston’s size and speed, and Brown’s, specifically. Beginning in Game 2, Golden State moved—out of glaring need—away from trying Thompson on Brown to having Green defend him whenever possible. That decision stifled Brown the first time out, as Green proved to be equal parts brilliant, physical, and antagonistic.

Brown responded by reviewing the tape, seeing all that the matchup could offer him, and then working over one of the best defensive players in the sport. Whatever force Green brought to the assignment dissipated once Brown started blowing right past him in Game 3. “That’s how I play,” Brown said Wednesday. “I feel like I can get by any defender that’s in front of me.”

While largely true, that same mentality has also led the 25-year-old Celtics star to press throughout his young career and even in these playoffs. (Like, for example, in the middle of a Boston meltdown that nearly cost them a spot in the Finals.) The fact that Brown can get where he wants on the floor makes it all the more crucial that he knows when not to drive into traffic and when not to settle for a quick pull-up jumper. There’s a larger game at play, and Brown showed a growing mastery of it as he drove past Green in Game 3.

Some of that was quickness, pure and simple. Some of it, in this case, was leverage.

A lot is asked of Green in Golden State’s broader defensive strategy, to the point that many of his responsibilities are in direct competition with one another. It’s now his job to keep Brown under wraps, and yet if Jayson Tatum has the ball on the other side of the floor, it’s also Green’s responsibility to crowd the paint to take away his driving lanes. But if Brown is involved in a screen, Draymond might have to switch out to pick up a different Celtic instead. Then, if Boston’s bigs are lurking around the rim at any point, it’s also usually up to Green to challenge them inside, for the simple fact that so few other Warriors really can.

Many of Brown’s attacks in Game 3 came at the intersection of those obligations. Even when Green managed to help inside and still recover out to the perimeter to take away the open 3, Brown responded by shifting his balance and driving past Draymond, exploiting his frantic momentum.

It’s quite a reversal. Green is no stranger to playing cat-and-mouse on defense, but typically he’s the one setting the bait and springing the trap. Brown and the Celtics have him at a rare disadvantage; it takes a dangerous team to put Draymond in this many precarious positions and a sophisticated operator to get the best of him as consistently as Brown did in Game 3.

“Early on in his career, [Brown] was getting out and he was just running like a chicken with his head cut off,” Marcus Smart said. “We would make a joke with him about that. Now he’s really thinking the game. He’s playing the game. He’s letting it come to him and it’s slowing down for him.”

It’s not always perfect. Brown isn’t above driving headlong into traffic or pulling up for ill-considered jumpers now and again, as is natural for a 20-something still coming into his own. Yet like other talented wings before him, Brown is learning that he’s explosive enough off the dribble that he doesn’t have to rush. He can take his time, read the floor, and still blow past or shoot over the top of almost any defender the Warriors put in front of him.

Such is the benefit of being Golden State’s second priority. Brown doesn’t have to worry about shedding Andrew Wiggins, who blocked one of his jumpers in Game 3 before it could even get airborne. And the fact that it’s Green who guards him instead—against type and across positions—means that Golden State’s best back-line defender is already accounted for on every drive. Brown just doesn’t have to sort through the same layers of dedicated help defense the Warriors put between Tatum and the rim. He’s thriving in the opportunities created by his circumstances—as a second star making things happen as only a second star can.

“Since Ime [Udoka] has been here, he’s wanted to put the ball in my hands more so than at any other point in my career,” Brown said. “I’ve made leaps by getting that experience and things like that. Sometimes I make the wrong read. I’m human; I make mistakes. [But] I feel like if you put the ball in my hands, more often than not I’m going to put ourselves in a good position to win.”

The most meaningful growth Brown has shown in these playoffs hasn’t come from any particular skill, but from a greater understanding of how to deploy his full range of abilities. He knows there’s time for spin moves and stepbacks, and a time for easy offense. He sees the chance to attack a defender one-on-one, but directs teammates to their spots first—as he did several times in Game 3—to get the best possible spacing. He bounces back from a 5-for-17 shooting night by better understanding the defender in front of him and the dynamics at play.

“He has been challenged a lot this year, and he responds,” Al Horford said. “That’s the one thing that I’ve seen with him. That’s the one thing that I’m most proud of him: just the way that he’s able to embrace challenges, respond, and deliver.”

After three games, Brown leads the Celtics in scoring (by a hair) for these Finals, but not in shots—even with Tatum operating as more of a facilitator. He starts some possessions in the corners, but finds dynamic ways to work out of them. The Warriors changed their defensive alignment specifically in response to those kinds of threats, and Brown twisted that adjustment to ring out Golden State’s entire scheme. In retrospect, Green’s blustering physicality against Brown in Game 2 feels more like a survival tactic. There are no points in hitting or grabbing or kicking an opponent. You do those things to get in someone’s head—to distract them from the fact that they hold all the cards.