There’s more to Jaylen Brown’s playoffs than LeBron James comments

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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Don’t call LeBron James a “regular person.” Ever. Especially when you’re a rookie, Jaylen Brown. Even more so when you’re tasked with guarding him at times in the Eastern Conference Finals.

When Brown uttered those words, he received a fair amount of criticism, because, well, he’s kinda wrong. If you’re asked about LeBron, you just pay respect to the challenge of guarding him. In the “neighborhood” of the conference finals or the NBA world in general, there are no “bigger threats” than LeBron James.

The age-old advice of not poking a lion, or a bear, or a LeBron should always be followed. An angry LeBron is dangerous. Despite a poor, passive showing in Game 3 and a fairly slow start to Game 4, he has mostly had his way against the Boston Celtics and Jaylen Brown — in particular, during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 130–86 Game 2 win after Brown’s comments.

Knowing his limits and not sounding like Stanley Johnson before LeBron matchups is one way Brown can improve. Yet that doesn’t mean his series has been all bad.

For a start, Brown has shown some defensive capabilities against LeBron. Like any team, the Celtics don’t have anyone that can stop him. Going from Brown to Jae Crowder to Kelly Olynyk to Al Horford, and generally shuffling through everything they have, still hasn’t been enough to keep LeBron at bay. With Brown, the Celtics believe they have a potentially elite defender. Thanks to his fantastic explosion, lateral quickness, 6–7 frame and seven-foot wingspan, he has a perfect set of physical tools.

His effort level, married with his length, has enabled Brown to improve, as shown in possessions like this one below. He uses his agility, persistence and size to pester LeBron, jab at the ball, and keep him from driving to the paint:

Similarly, Brown did a good job of staying in front of LeBron here, sustaining the contact fairly well on the drive and hurriedly shifting his feet to avoid giving up an easy blow-by:

Here, Brown shows his impressive rookie strength with solid post defense on LeBron. By correctly angling himself — facing away from the baseline — Brown can send LeBron to the lane if he tries to drive by. By getting close and not being backed down in the post, Brown manages to hold off LeBron and encourage him to pass the ball out. While LeBron may have passed out of choice and not necessity, you can’t fault the energy in guarding LeBron and grabbing another rebound:

Then again, there are times when LeBron destroys the Celtics for 30 points, speeding past Brown or drawing a foul on his way to the rim:

However, since no one is expecting anyone — especially a rookie like Brown — to stop LeBron, the encouraging signs are worth noting. Unfortunate press interview comments aside, the youngster’s competitiveness is what teams want in a defender. Having that at 20 years old is even better.

In the playoffs, Brown’s performance has been up and down. On a handful of nights, he has either hardly played or not done much in lower minutes. In other games, Brad Stevens has been able to use his rookie to provide a spark. Except for a scoreless, 12-minute showing in Game 3 against Cleveland, Brown has scored at least nine points in every game of the series, highlighted by a near double-double (10 points and nine rebounds) in Game 1 and 19 points in Game 2 on 7-of-11 shooting with some notable defensive moments sprinkled throughout. Per 100 possessions, the Celtics have been better on both offense and defense with the 20-year-old on the floor in this series.

Brown is explosive and has more physicality than most rookies to help him attack the rim. He can put his head down, take a little contact, and still rise up to finish at the rim. Some of his layups can look out of control with his arms thrusting high into the air, rather than gently dropping the ball into the basket. Nevertheless, he can finish:

Brown’s ability to attack closeouts has improved. In particular against the Cavs’ older, slower wings, his athleticism sets him apart by a mile, and the way he blew past Kyle Korver here — dipping his shoulder past the contact and finishing strong — is exactly what the Celtics want from him:

Whenever Brown can score on athletically inferior opponents in the post and show off touch like this, that’s a bonus:

The athletic jolt Brown gives the Celtics, both with his versatility on defense and ability to penetrate on offense with an improving eye for cuts and drives to the basket, is ideal against the Cavs. First, the Celtics have needed all the help they can get. Then having someone with his bounce is particularly helpful against slower-footed wings such as Korver and Richard Jefferson.

That said, in comparison to most players, Brown will be athletically superior. This will help him immensely. As his handle improves, he will drive and create more off the dribble. As his defensive positioning and help defense develop, he will put his physical attributes to even better use at that end of the floor. If (a big if, but nothing impossible) his jumper keeps coming along, which was a fairly pleasant surprise this regular season with 46 made 3s at a 34.1 percent rate, the Celtics can continue to integrate the young wing as a key part of their future.

Unfortunately, that might not include the rest of this year’s playoffs. As ESPN’s Chris Forsberg has reported, Brown is questionable to play in Game 5 due to a right hip pointer.

Judging from some of the play Brown provided in the regular season, though, most recently in some spells against the Cavs, the Celtics can be happy with their 2016 lottery pick.

The ceiling is high at both ends of the floor for Jaylen Brown, and you can count on him leaping for it with all the athleticism and competitiveness he can muster next season.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.