It turns out Jaylen Brown was exactly what the Celtics needed

Chris Forsberg
·6 min read

Forsberg: Turns out Jaylen was exactly what C's needed originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

About those boos. The ones that rained down inside TD Garden during the Boston Celtics’ 2016 draft party when owner Wyc Grousbeck took the stage to announce the team had used the No. 3 pick to nab Jaylen Brown.

We know those boos weren’t for Brown. Firework-hungry Celtics fans wanted the team to make a big-splash move for a more proven commodity, not take a raw 19-year-old kid coming off a somewhat underwhelming lone college season.

Those fans wanted Jimmy Butler, the readily available All-Star wing who most were willing to splurge on if it morphed Boston into something more than the scrappy bunch of overachievers they had been early in Brad Stevens' tenure.

We bring this up, of course, because Brown and Butler will be on opposite sides of the court Tuesday night when the Celtics and Heat tip off the 2020 Eastern Conference finals inside the Orlando bubble and, well, there’s no escaping how they’re a bit intertwined.

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But here’s why it’s particularly notable: For 23-year-old Brown, this will be his third appearance in the East finals in four NBA seasons. Not only that, it’s his third trip with three different iterations of the Celtics roster. Brown is one of the common threads in all of Boston’s recent success.

As Heat forward Kelly Olynyk noted this week, there are only two players remaining from Boston’s 2017 playoff squad (Brown and Marcus Smart).  Brown was a rookie role player on the 2017 group that rode Isaiah Thomas’ magic until his hip finally gave out in the East finals.

A year later, Brown took on a much heftier role and was Boston’s leading postseason scorer as the Celtics came four minutes away from a Finals appearance despite playing without injured Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving.

Brown, now with a whopping 55 games of playoff experience already under his young belt, arrives back in the East finals this year as possibly the player most vital to Boston’s hopes of finally getting through to the Finals. If the Heat focus much of their defensive energies on slowing Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, it's Brown that needs to punish their lesser perimeter defenders.

What’s more, fresh off his stellar defensive efforts against Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, Brown will be tasked with stopping a couple of Miami All-Stars, including Bam Adebayo.

And he’ll also be asked to take some turns on Butler.

It would be fascinating to know how things might have played out if the Celtics had overpaid for Butler’s services and sacrificed the long-term future by moving that No. 3 pick. Would Butler have emerged as the superstar face of a championship-contending Celtics squad? And how might it have changed how Boston constructed its roster moving forward?

Boston’s window of opportunity seemingly would have been very different. Butler turned 31 on Monday and, despite his high level of play this year, it’s fair to wonder how deep into the future he can be Miami’s best player.

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At 23, Brown just keeps pushing his perceived ceiling higher and higher. After last year’s roster logjam stunted his progress, Brown came back this year ready to display a whole bunch of new weapons in his toolbox. A long-term extension of his rookie pact in place, Brown nearly earned an All-Star nod and probably will land it next year — and maybe many years to come — based on his two-way play. Boston’s future is incredibly bright with Brown at the helm alongside Tatum.

It can be even brighter if Brown can help figure out how to bottle up Butler and Adebayo in this series.

How Boston matches up with Miami will be particularly fascinating. Butler missed the final regular-season meeting between the two teams last month in the bubble. Before that, Brown had logged a team-high 6 minutes, 37 seconds of matchup time over two games against Butler. He allowed 11 points on 3-of-6 shooting with a turnover in that span.

Both Tatum and Smart logged long shifts against Butler despite playing against him only one time each during the regular season. Given the way Smart was able to smother Kyle Lowry last round — and given some “Not about that life” history between the two players from the 2017 Celtics-Bulls playoffs — we might see a healthy dose of Smart on Butler.

The key for Brown or whoever draws Butler will be trying to avoid fouling. Butler routinely puts on a masterclass in getting to the free-throw line. Call him James Harden East with a .693 free-throw rate this season. That number, which reflects the number of free throws attempted per field goal attempt, has spiked to a preposterous .865 in the playoffs.

Butler has taken 96 free throws and 111 field goals through nine games. For the sake of comparison, Harden was at .509 free-throw rate with 116 free throws compared to 228 field goal attempts.

Stevens has reminded his team to avoid fouling shooters in the air. That’s easier said than done with the way Butler forces the issue.

Adebayo isn’t much easier to defend. Much like Siakam, Brown will be giving up size. He’ll have to match Adebayo’s strength and try to push him away from the basket, especially important because of Adebayo’s explosiveness and ability to simply produce dunks if he’s near the hoop.

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“Being versatile is something that I've always prided myself on,” said Brown. "And it's something that's probably the reason why I think we're so good as a team, because we're so versatile. So, being able to guard multiple guys, as well as guys like Siakam or, or Bam or Jimmy, whoever, it's gonna take for a group team effort.”

If Brown and Co. can limit Butler’s free throws and take away those easy Adebayo dunks, then it’s going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on Miami’s perimeter shooters to keep knocking down 3-pointers to fuel the Heat offense. Boston has historically been one of the best 3-point defenses in the NBA the past decade, but the Heat have shot 38 percent as a team while getting up a high number of triples this postseason.

Brown’s efforts might have floated a bit under the radar in Round 2. He played a big part in Siakam’s struggles, all while scoring 20+ points per game. Sometimes Brown’s influence is overshadowed by Tatum’s loud stat lines or some of the more obvious defensive heroics produced by Smart.

But Brown is vital to Boston’s success. He has been throughout his NBA career. It’s why the Celtics are playing in another Eastern Conference finals. Ironically, all those antsy Boston fans on draft night 2016 didn’t realize they were getting exactly the player that would deliver them where they wanted to go.

But Celtics fans are antsy again. They want the team to get over the hump again. And there will be no shortage of cheers for Brown if he can deliver this team to the championship stage.