2022 NBA Finals preview: Can Jaylen Brown help manifest a Celtics title?

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Forsberg's NBA Finals preview: Can Jaylen Brown help manifest a title? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

SAN FRANCISCO -- Six years ago to the day, Jaylen Brown stood on the court at Oracle Arena watching the Golden State Warriors warm up for Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals and, before he even knew he’d be drafted by a contending team, boldly declared that he wanted to be on the NBA Finals stage one day.

Prolonging his trend of speaking things into existence -- you’ll recall Brown's January declaration that the energy was about to shift with the 2021-22 Celtics, which became the catchphrase for the team's unprecedented second-half surge -- Brown will suit up Thursday for his first Finals appearance just a short Bay Area Rapid Transit ride from the spot where he first announced his intentions.

Is Brown clairvoyant? He certainly seems to be able to see improbable possibilities coming long before anyone else. To truly gauge Brown's psychic prowess, we sought out the only teammate who could potentially match his soothsayer ways: Robert Williams.

“I guess he’s seeing some s— we ain’t seeing," said the man affectionately dubbed Time Lord. “I can stop time a little bit. JB, he’s Dr. Strange."

Brown may be the Sorcerer Supreme but our crystal ball suggests that, if the Celtics are to cap their magical playoff march and deny the Golden State Warriors their fourth title in eight years, then Brown might hold the key to Boston’s title desires.

Brown, if nothing else, is quite familiar with the team that stands between him and Boston’s 18th title.

"Being here at Cal, at Berkeley, going to a lot of [Warriors] game, being on the floor," explained Brown. "Nick Kerr was my teammate, which is Steve Kerr's son. Long before I got to the NBA, I got to talk to those guys.

"Coming into the league, knowing I wanted to be in that position, knowing I wanted to build that type of locker room environment [where] you could sustain winning. Luckily, we've been able to find some success, going to the Conference Finals and making it over the hump and finally going to the Finals. So I'm excited about the future."

Celtics Talk: Celtics in 7? Breaking down NBA Finals matchup against the Warriors | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

One year after being sidelined during Boston’s forgettable first-round playoff exit against the Brooklyn Nets, Brown has played a lead role in the Celtics’ surge to the Finals. He’s averaging career playoff bests at 22.9 points and 3.5 assists per game. His fourth-quarter efforts aided Boston’s first-round sweep of the Nets and, outside of some maddening turnover woes, Brown has been a key contributor this postseason.

With so much of the pre-Finals hype landing on Jayson Tatum and Stephen Curry, it feels like there’s an opportunity for Brown to emerge as the surprise star of the series.

It won’t be easy. He’ll be tasked with chasing around players like Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins on the defensive end, while trying to preserve the sort of energy that has allowed him to relentlessly attack the basket late in games when Boston’s offense sometimes goes stagnant.

The Celtics were at their stingiest with Brown on the court during two regular-season games against the Warriors this season. In Brown’s 68 minutes of floor time, the C's allowed a mere 94.2 points per 100 possessions, or 11.7 points below their two-game average. Boston’s defensive rating spiked to 132.7 in the 28 minutes without Brown.

If Brown can help Boston’s defense have the same sort of juice (or should we say 7uice) in the Finals, there’s a chance for him to do more than just compete on the championship stage.

In that courtside video, Brown declared, "One day I want to be in the same situation as these guys … I want to get here so bad. I’ll be here.”

Twenty-one days after his Finals visit, the Celtics selected Brown with the No. 3 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. He joined a team that was about to land Al Horford in free agency, while Isaiah Thomas readied to jump into the MVP conversation with a breakout in Brown’s rookie season.

It felt like the Celtics couldn’t produce a more storybook campaign than that season -- Thomas’ explosion undoubtedly makes that run all the more historic -- but this year’s group is stating a heck of a case to be in the same conversation.

When the Celtics dropped to three games under .500 and 11th place in the East in early January, the team could have splintered. The cries that Brown and Tatum couldn’t play together got louder. But the core of this team used that as motivation to fuel a second-half surge that saw Boston emerge as the best team in basketball over the final three months of the regular season.

The Turnaround of the 2022 Celtics & Raising Another Banner

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Brown’s energy-shifting tweet might have been more about Mercury’s retrograde than a suggestion the Celtics were about to take flight. But even if he’s not clairvoyant, he’s impossibly positive in the face of dire circumstances.

Which helps explains Boston’s resiliency this postseason.

"I will always have unwavering faith, even in the midst of situations that look like things are about to go in a direction that nobody wants to go in,” said Brown. "I will always have faith in this group and in this organization and in myself that we'll be all right.

“In those moments where we lost, I knew that we had so much to learn and that I had so much to learn. If anything, it was more encouraging to learn from my mistakes and get better … I didn't have any time to question myself or question what was in front of me because my belief was so strong.”

The Celtics haven’t always played to their late-season level in the playoffs but they’ve always found a way to win. It’s worth noting that Mercury went into its second retrograde of the calendar year on May 10. Boston immediately dropped Game 5 to the Bucks but rallied to prevail in the series.

That retrograde ends on June 3, or the day after Game 1. If Brown knows what it all means to these Celtics, he hasn’t made it public knowledge. But he exudes the same confidence he’s preached since early January.

"We've been through a lot,” said Brown. "We’ve learned a lot over the years, and now the stage is at its brightest, we've got to apply everything that we've learned into these moments.”

About that energy shift...

Did Williams know the energy shift was coming before Brown’s declaration? No, but someone else might have been ahead of the curve in Celtics first-year coach Ime Udoka.

"It's crazy,” said Williams. "Around the same time JB made that tweet, I was talking to Ime in the kitchen at the practice facility. And I was just telling him, 'I'm tired of this s—, I’m tired of losing.’ And he looked at me and was like, ‘We about to get this s— right."

While a big series by Brown could be key to Boston winning a title, Williams’ ability to stay on the court could be Boston’s biggest X-factor. If he’s hobbled like in Game 7 in Miami, the Celtics would be better off resting him with two days between Games 1 and 2.

If Williams is closer to the menace running around and holding the Warriors to 3-of-10 shooting (including 1-of-5 beyond the arc) in a March meeting, then Boston’s defense gets that much harder to crack.

"If it was easy..."

Derrick White provided the line of the playoffs when, after Boston’s gut-punch Game 6 loss to the Heat, he stated, “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be us.”

The Celtics have gushed resiliency this postseason. It’s become a calling card as this team took on the personality of its coach. They’re going to have to be able to take a punch yet again.

Whether it’s the well-rested Warriors playing with more energy in Game 1 or the Celtics being unable to weather a offensive explosion by the Splash Brothers, Boston will likely to have to dig deep again in this series.

But even the most ardent of Celtics fans knows there’s only one way this series can end. Nothing has come easy for Boston -- heck, even a first-round sweep of the Nets took some crunch-time heroics -- but they’ve routinely found a way. Do they have enough left in the tank to grind through one more series?

If the Celtics lean on their defense and their offense is unleashed a bit away from the grind of the East gauntlet, then this team can win this series. But it won’t be easy. And, keeping with the theme, we can see Boston misfiring with a chance to close out at home in Game 6 only to fly 3,000 miles and produce another monster road win -- this one delivering Banner 18.

Series prediction: Celtics in 7