With a little more than two and a half minutes left in the first half of a game they needed to win to keep their championship hopes alive, the Celtics endeavored to become their best selves. Before 2020 postseason debutant Gordon Hayward took his second free throw, head coach Brad Stevens called center Daniel Theis to the bench, replacing him with “stretch-6” Marcus Smart to form a lineup that puts Boston’s five best players—Hayward, Smart, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown—on the floor at the same time, positions and tradition be damned.
It’s a lineup that Stevens barely used during the regular season—just 18 total minutes and a piddling 38 non-garbage-time possessions—in part because there’s no need to damn the torpedoes every night during the regular season (and you need to save some surprises for the playoffs), and in part because running out units featuring no player taller than 6-foot-8 or heavier than 225 pounds could leave Boston at risk of matchup disadvantages against bigger opponents. But Hayward’s return from the ankle injury that sidelined him since the first day of the playoffs put this option back on the menu, and with the Heat up 2-0 in the East finals and starting to cut into Boston’s lead in Game 3, Stevens ordered it. The decision required Brown—all 6-foot-6 and 223 pounds of him—to bear the brunt of the downshift, slide over to the 5, and square up against All-Star center Bam Adebayo.
Instead of muscling up against Miami’s marauding center, though, Brown leveraged his speed, length, and smarts to do the job, limiting the Heat to one shot and giving Boston another chance to extend its lead. He pressed up on Adebayo to keep him from surveying the floor from his preferred spot at the elbow. He switched onto the ball handlers curling around Bam’s hip to blow up the Heat’s pet dribble handoff actions. He shot the gap to knock away a softball post entry pass and battled in the paint to tap out a rebound.
The small-ball decision worked, sparking an 11-2 run that extinguished Miami’s momentum and sent the Celtics into halftime up 13. It worked, in large part, because Brown made it work. Which, as it happens, is a pretty handy encapsulation of what Brown does for Boston.
After two games of brutal struggles, the Celtics shot nearly 60 percent from the field against Miami’s zone defense in Game 3, with Brown’s activity as a cutter, passer, driver, and slasher providing a big part of the solution. With Tatum and Walker drawing the lion’s share of the Heat’s defensive attention, Boston needs Brown to punish mismatches against Miami’s weaker wings; through three games, he’s scored 27 points on 12-for-15 shooting (with a pair of shooting fouls drawn) in 39 partial possessions with either Duncan Robinson or Goran Dragic guarding him, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. When Brown is aggressive, Boston’s offense becomes even more dangerous: It’s likely no coincidence that, as my Ringer colleague Haley O’Shaughnessy noted after Game 3, Boston went 16-4 during the regular season when Brown attempted at least 17 shots, or that its lone win against Miami in this series occurred when 14 of his 17 attempts came in the lane to help propel the Celtics to a whopping 60-36 edge in points in the paint.
Brown has to hunt for those shots while also playing a massive role within a Celtics defense that allowed the fourth fewest points per possession during the regular season and has been the league’s stingiest unit this postseason. According to defensive metrics compiled by Krishna Narsu and Andrew Patton of The BBall Index, the only Celtic to spend more time than Brown guarding opponents’ no. 1 or no. 2 offensive options this season was Smart, who was recently rewarded with a spot on the All-Defensive first team. Brown, meanwhile, received just two total second-team votes: one as a guard, the other as a forward. Positionality, we repeat, is a construct … and, when it comes to Brown’s work on the defensive end, it’s not a particularly useful one.
In Boston’s opening-round sweep of the 76ers, Brown most frequently matched up against the larger Al Horford and Tobias Harris, dampening them inside and out to expedite Philadelphia’s exit. In the Round 2 war with Toronto, he made Pascal Siakam’s life miserable, and still found time to harass guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet into 9-for-29 shooting combined when defending them. He’s moved all over the chessboard against Miami so far. At the start of Game 3, he was hounding the sharpshooting Robinson, an exhausting cover of a player Boston can’t afford to let get going. When Stevens went small, Brown had to deal with the bruising Adebayo; in between, Brown spent shifts on Butler, Dragic, former teammate Jae Crowder, and the delightfully precocious Tyler Herro. All told, Brown’s various marks produced just 12 points on a combined 3-for-15 shooting with six assists against five turnovers—all while supplying 26-7-5 in 43 minutes of work.
There aren’t many players in the league who defend all over the positional spectrum while also serving as a legit second scoring option. According to Narsu and Patton’s data, Brown spent about 9 percent of his floor time checking centers, 16 percent on point guards, and the rest shuffling among the wing positions. Only 10 other players in the whole league spent as much time guarding 1 through 5; only three did so while posting as high a usage rate as Brown and averaging 20 points per game. One is Russell Westbrook, whose center time may be unduly skewed by Houston’s plunge into extreme small ball. If you toss him out on that Moreyball technicality—sorry, Russ—you’re left with two dudes who have generated roughly the same two-way profile as Brown this season: Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler.
OK, OK, you got me: Jimmy averaged 19.9 points per game this season. (I rounded up in hopes that I might one day get a discount on a cup of Big Face Coffee.) Still: That’s pretty good company for any wing to be in, let alone one playing such a huge role at just a young age.
It’s easy to forget, but Brown’s not even nine months older than Bam. There’s still so much room for him to grow—as an off-the-dribble creator and a passer, chiefly. By virtue of his postseason experience in his first four seasons, his versatility on both ends of the court, and his ineffable character, Brown has come to occupy a central role in the Celtics’ hierarchy. If Boston can come back and get past Miami, Brown would be in line for a major challenge in the NBA Finals. Against the Lakers, his likely assignment would be LeBron James, whom he’s been guarding since his rookie year and on whom he was the Celtics’ primary defender during the regular season (and maybe some spot duty against Anthony Davis in what figures to be an all-hands-on-deck scenario); against the Nuggets, he’d possibly adopt a supersized version of the role he played against Bam should Stevens seek a change-of-pace small-ball antidote for Nikola Jokic. Whatever task Stevens sets out for him, it’s clear that the 23-year-old Brown will be counted on to not only accomplish it, but to serve as a tone-setting leader in doing so.
It feels noteworthy, and perhaps instructive, that after a disappointing Game 2 loss that led a distraught Smart to blow up in the locker room, it was Brown who reportedly “snapped back [at Smart] and shouted that Celtics players must stay together and that their actions must come as a team, not individually.” When it was time to explain all those “loud clanks” to the media, Brown espoused his love for Smart and his “passion,” challenged his teammate to “take that same fire [and] add it to Game 3,” and expressed his own eagerness to do the same.
“I was so antsy to get back and play basketball,” he told reporters.
Then he went out, backed up the talk, and helped get the Celtics back into this series.
Tatum is the ascendant superstar and focal point of the attack; he’s on pace to be just the third age-22 player to average 25-10-4 in the postseason, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley. Walker is the boom-or-bust backcourt bellwether—the jitterbug point guard who can ignite the Celtic offense with his 3-point bombing and pick-and-roll playmaking, but whose diminutive stature can be a two-way liability against elite opponents in high-leverage situations. Hayward is the swing piece, Smart is the stick of dynamite, Theis is the stabilizer, and so on.
Brown, though? He just makes it work—whatever it happens to be—and, in the process, unlocks a version of the Celtics that can go toe-to-toe with anybody.