If you forget that the Warriors are no longer the fastest and most explosive team on the court, let Jaylen Brown remind you. He’s here to wall in Stephen Curry and take his dribbling away; chasing a cut by Klay Thompson and flying in from behind to end his layup attempt; driving right past Draymond Green on his way to a runner. He’s here to make a great opponent live up to his age.
With all the adjustments that can and will be made in this NBA Finals, there is only so much that can be done to accommodate Boston’s size and speed, and Brown’s in particular. Beginning in Game 2, Golden State — out of glaring necessity — moved away from attempting Thompson against Brown and let Green defend him whenever possible. That decision smothered Brown the first time, as Green turned out to be equal parts brilliant, physical, and antagonistic.
Brown responded by checking the tape, seeing everything the matchup could offer him and then working on one of the sport’s best defensive players. Whatever Green brought to the task went away when Brown started blowing right past him in Game 3. “That’s how I play,” Brown said on Wednesday. “I feel like I can get past any defender in front of me.”
While that’s largely true, the same mentality has also led the 25-year-old Celtics star to press throughout his fledgling career and even into these playoffs. (Like, for example, in the midst of a Boston meltdown that nearly cost her a Finals spot.) The fact that Brown can get where he wants on the floor makes it all the more important that he knows when Not to drive into traffic and when Not to settle for a fast pull-up jumper. It’s a bigger game at play, and Brown showed growing mastery as he drove past Green in Game 3.
Some of it was speed, pure and simple. Part of that, in this case, was leverage.
Much is asked of Green in Golden State’s broader defense strategy, to the point that many of his responsibilities are in direct competition with one another. It’s his job now to keep Brown under wraps, and yet when Jayson Tatum has the ball on the other side of the floor, it’s also Green’s responsibility to fill in the paint to clear his lanes. But if Brown is involved on a screen, Draymond may have to make a substitution to pick up another Celtic instead. Then, if Boston’s bigs lurk somewhere on the edge, that’s it Also It’s usually up to Green to challenge them on the inside, for the simple reason that so few other warriors can really do it.
Many of Brown’s attacks in Game 3 took place at the intersection of those commitments. Even as Green managed to help inside and still recover to the rim to take away the open 3, Brown responded by shifting his balance and driving past Draymond, capitalizing on his frantic momentum.
It’s quite a reversal. Green is no stranger to playing cat and mouse on defense, but he’s usually the one who sets the bait and snaps the trap shut. Brown and the Celtics have rarely put him at a disadvantage; It takes a dangerous team to get Draymond into so many vulnerable positions and a slick Operator to get the best out of him as consistently as Brown did in Game 3.
“Early on in his career [Brown] got out and just ran away like a chicken with his head cut off,” said Marcus Smart. “We would joke with him about that. Now he’s really thinking about the game. He’s playing the game. He’s letting it come and it’s slowing down for him.”
It’s not always perfect. Brown doesn’t shy away from swerving headlong into traffic or stopping for the occasional rash jumper, as is natural for a twenty-something still getting his way. However, like other talented wings before him, Brown is learning that he’s explosive enough out of dribbling that he doesn’t need to rush. He can take his time, read the ground, and still blow past or shoot over almost any defender the Warriors put in front of him.
That’s the perk of being Golden State’s second priority. Brown doesn’t have to worry about losing Andrew Wiggins, who blocked one of his jumpers in Game 3 before he could even get airborne. And the fact that it’s Green guarding him instead – against every type and across positions – means Golden State’s best defender is already being considered on every drive. Brown just doesn’t need to run through the same layers of dedicated assist defense that the Warriors put between Tatum and the rim. He thrives in the opportunities presented by his circumstances – as a second star making things happen as only a second star can.
“Since I [Udoka] was here, he wanted to put the ball in my hands more than at any other point in my career,” Brown said. “I’ve made leaps by getting that experience and things like that. Sometimes I read wrong. I am human; I make mistakes. [But] I feel like most of the time you put the ball in my hand I put us in a good position to win.”
The most significant growth Brown has shown in these playoffs hasn’t come from any specific skill, but from a better understanding of how to use his full range of skills. He knows there’s a time for spin moves and stepbacks and a time for light attacks. He sees an opportunity to attack a defender one-on-one, but directs teammates to their seats first – as he did several times in Game 3 – to get the best possible distance. He’s recovering from a 5v17 shooting night by better understanding the defender in front of him and the dynamics in the game.
“He’s been challenged a lot this year and he’s responding,” said Al Horford. “That’s the only thing I’ve seen on him. That’s the one thing I’m most proud of about him: just the way he takes on challenges, responds to them and delivers.”
After three games, Brown leads the Celtics in points (through a hair) for this finale, but not in recordings – although Tatum is acting more as a moderator. He starts some possessions in the corners but finds dynamic ways to carve them out. The Warriors changed their defensive alignment specifically in response to these types of threats, and Brown twisted that adjustment to make Golden State’s entire scheme ring out. Looking back, Green’s pounding physicality against Brown in Game 2 feels more like a survival tactic. There are no points for hitting, grabbing, or kicking an opponent. They do these things to get someone’s mind off – to distract them from the fact that they have all the cards in their hands.