Jaylen Brown Was The Celtics’ Tone-Setter In Game 1

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Key Highlights

  • Jaylen Brown dropped 22 points, six rebounds, three steals, three blocks and two assists in the Boston Celtics‘ Game 1 rout of the Dallas Mavericks
  • Brown served as Luka Doncic‘s primary defender and forced two turnovers against him
  • The Celtics outscored Dallas by 12 points during Brown’s 37 minutes

Game 1 required mere seconds for Jaylen Brown to announce himself. To make clear he would be the preeminent star of the evening. To enforce he was ready and eager for another crack at hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. To showcase the growth propelling him to new levels this season.

After Al Horford won the tip and guided the ball toward Brown, Kyrie Irving snuck behind him and jarred it loose. Brown instantaneously dove to the floor (a recurring theme for him in this one), beat out Irving for possession, and whipped a pass to Derrick White.

Twenty seconds later, Horford shot-faked, drove and packed home a dunk for the opening points of the night — a night defined by Brown’s multifaceted stardom. Throughout 37 minutes, the 6-foot-6 wing poured in a team-high 22 points (65.3 percent true shooting), six boards, three steals, three blocks and two assists.

He began most possessions guarding Luka Doncic, usually before the half-court line. He sought out Doncic on switches to force him into space and ignite driving opportunities. He found open teammates when help collapsed. He plugged gaps as an off-ball defender.

Midway through the third, Doncic rainbowed in a pull-up triple and trimmed Boston’s lead to eight — the result of Brown ducking under a screen against him and being slow to reconnect. Over the following five minutes, Brown scored eight points, swatted three shots, drew two fouls, logged an assist and snagged a rebound. Boston’s lead ballooned from eight to 22.

Throughout his career, he’s authored far gaudier scoring performances. But given the gravity of Thursday and his well-rounded signature, it may have been his most impressive. There was nobody better on the floor than him, and, frankly, it was not all that close — his only rival the shot-making and rim protection of Kristaps Porzingis‘ busy 21 minutes.

Brown’s outing illuminated his steadfast strengths: early offense scoring, mismatch attacking, and on-ball chops defensively. It also spotlighted his development: passing vision, on-ball decision-making, off-ball awareness defensively, and screen navigation.

For a player whose flaws have sometimes seemed so glaring to contrast his clear, specific superlatives, Game 1 deviated from that — a summation of the small leaps he’s enjoyed this season to become a notably improved player.

The arrival of Porzingis and Jrue Holiday undoubtedly vaulted Boston from the very good team of years past to the juggernaut of 2023-24, a 77-20 squad that has been the league’s best for nearly eight months now. Yet Brown’s development has been similarly vital. He’s refined a handful of areas enough that they’ve coalesced to render him a more complete star, no longer saddled by rigid (albeit, important) avenues through which to establish his mark.

From the jump, he defended Doncic. He refused to lunge at fakes, built high pick-up points, disrupted any chance of an early offense flow, and offered a buffer to prevent the brilliant star from hurling the Celtics defense into rotation. Their switch-heavy scheme meant he wasn’t chasing Doncic around all game, but did so enough to leave a dent.

Doncic’s individual production — 30 points, 10 rebounds, two steals — popped. But Brown’s point-of-attack efforts were instrumental in curbing his holistic impact (one assist, four turnovers, five free throw attempts). Dallas’ offensive rating was just 95.9 with Doncic on the floor. While that’s not all about Boston and Brown’s execution, it speaks partly to their work.

The Mavericks also entered Thursday averaging 3.2 alley-oops per playoff game. They did not have any in Game 1. Brown’s rim protection contributed to that. Between the on-ball feistiness and off-ball attentiveness, it was one of the best all-around defensive games of his NBA tenure. He brought such imperative focus and discipline — an amped-up, dialed-in ethos without the recklessness sometimes stemming from such bottled energy.

As a scorer, Brown was selective. He attempted only 12 shots and drilled seven of them. Even so, the tempo on his drives and manner in which he set up his moves were pristine. Aware of how to navigate Dallas’ interior size and help, he wielded control downhill. Doncic was an early and frequent target for Boston’s offense on switches and Brown took advantage a few times.

Late in the third, he dotted a pull-up triple over Daniel Gafford‘s tardy limbs and kicked off the fourth with a whirling dervish finish inside. Those buckets punctuated his second half surge, a five-minute knockout ensuring the Mavericks’ comeback wouldn’t be seen through to completion.

Were Brown not mired in a prolonged free-throw funk (61.9 percent in the playoffs, 72 percent for his career) and gone 6-of-11 at the line, his scoring would’ve perked up. Regardless, his slashing proved integral — a bruising, jackknife style to complement the swirling, loping length of Tatum’s driving.

In the third quarter, Dereck Lively II‘s defensive versatility and rim deterrence posed some issues for Boston’s offense. So, across a 75-second span, Brown, with intrepid savvy, twice exploded to the rim and drew a pair of fouls against the rookie center. The second one was his fifth of the game and prompted him to the pine. Lively’s exit slid Kleber up to center and soon after, Gafford re-entered the contest.

Lively is Dallas’ best big, especially defensively. During his six-minute stint in the third, the Celtics scored 11 points. Once he sat, they scored 25 over a 9.5-minute period before head coach Jason Kidd subbed out Doncic and Irving, and emptied the bench down 100-75. Brown’s aggression helped key that.

The Mavericks’ defensive always wants to maintain a presence at the rim, ideally a big. That philosophy has driven their success through three rounds because every opponent has either lacked the spacing or playmaking panache (or both) to punish them.

The Celtics, however, represent a totally different challenge: a legitimate five-out offense with the requisite spacing, ball movement and connective passing to flourish. In Game 1, Brown sat central to this different challenge confronting Dallas.

Among his most prevalent points of maturation is kickout passing. If there’s nothing brewing inside as a driver, he’s so much more wired to sling reads to the perimeter or toward other release valves (a la when Boston slots someone in the dunker spot).

Compared to prior years, no popular playmaking proxy — assist rate, assists per 100 possessions, potential assists — capture this jump well. But Brown simply operates with newfound patience and composure when Plan A is eliminated or the defense sends extra bodies his direction.

Dallas wants to bog down the paint and gauge players’ on-the-fly decision-making. Brown happily accepted their approach and set the table for numerous quality looks. Three assists undersell his sharp processing.

Game 1 was a team effort for Boston. Seven of the eight rotation players cobbled together moments, stretches or an entire game of high-level ball. That’s what’s necessary to dismantle an opponent like Dallas. Amid the depth stood Brown. His rare blemishes largely occurred at the free-throw line, a place he earned to venture from his own dominance seconds earlier.

Varying factors behind both his resolute excellence and ushering in his finest season yet converged — a mosaic as to why he’s long been pretty dang good and how he’s since outgrown that label.

Fueled by it all, he played the sort of tremendous game a 22-6-3-3-2 line doesn’t properly convey, which is the surest sentiment of a great player doing great things. And, boy, did Brown do great things Thursday night.