The NBA Finals were set in motion by Jaylen Brown’s defense.

BOSTON – It’s early in the NBA Finals, but the Boston Celtics look insolvable.

Yes, the return of Kristaps Porzingis stole the spotlight in Game 1, and rightly so. Dallas might be in severe trouble if they keep switching smaller defenders on to Porzingis, who appeared to take it personally and scored practically every time he touched the ball with an advantage.

What can’t get lost in Boston’s dominant win to begin this series, though, is Jaylen Brown’s hyper-aggressive defense. Or, how dialed in everyone was defensively when it mattered most.

Time and time again during this postseason, Boston’s defense has collectively ramped up the intensity with the game hanging in the balance. You never know who’s going to make an unbelievable play to spark a run. But you’re aware it’s coming.

That’s the beauty of this Celtics unit.

Almost every night, it will be a different person’s moment to shine. They’ve won in various ways during this 13-2 playoff stretch. And while some games have followed a similar story arc, the hero seems to alternate from night to night.

The NBA Finals were set in motion by Jaylen Brown's defense.
                                          The NBA Finals were set in motion by Jaylen Brown’s defense.

We’ve seen Al Horford uncork seven threes when opponents leave him open. Jrue Holiday has ripped the heart out of teams with his unmatched defensive instincts. Derrick White has come through in clutch moments and shot the leather off the ball. Jayson Tatum has willed Boston to a few wins along the way, setting the table as the lead ball-handler and attacking downhill to generate open threes for his teammates.

Much like he closed out the Indiana series with loud defensive stops, he saved the Celtics from a nightmare to begin the Finals.

 

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Brown was the catalyst for Boston’s 14-0 run late in the third quarter on Thursday. Once Dallas trimmed the deficit to eight and started feeling comfortable, the Celtics proved they could respond to adversity on the biggest stage. Many questioned if they had the composure to answer the type of avalanche Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving were capable of sparking.

All it took was Brown putting his foot down and deciding eight points was the closest Dallas would get. From his savvy defensive plays near the rim to his timely drives that forced the Mavs into rotation, Brown turned all of the nervous energy in TD Garden to absolute pandemonium entering the fourth quarter.

As head coach Joe Mazzulla put it, Brown is showcasing exactly why the Celtics never lost faith in him after last May.

“What you saw tonight is the challenge he took for himself coming into the year,” Mazzulla expressed after Game 1. “Not wanting to be defined by one thing. Wanting to make plays. Wanting to be a well-rounded player, and get better and better. His spacing, ball movement, defense on and off the ball.”

The NBA Finals were set in motion by Jaylen Brown's defense.
                                              The NBA Finals were set in motion by Jaylen Brown’s defense.

It’s been an incredible bounce-back season for Brown. After last year’s meltdown against the Miami Heat in the East Finals, he absorbed most of the blame. He was rattled and didn’t handle it well once Miami loaded up in the halfcourt.

Brown turned 27 years old at the beginning of this season. The idea he was already supposed to be a finished product was unfair at the time. And it looks silly now. If anything, this year has proved that stars are still honing their craft in year eight and beyond.

Despite earning a supermax extension in the summer, Brown knew in order to win at the highest level, he needed to improve on the margins. Hearing the national reaction to his contract only fueled that fire.

Players in this era are scrutinized more than any stars of the past. They also can’t escape the chatter, being exposed to criticism on every platform they turn to. Although it’s popular for most players to say they “block out the noise” and don’t pay attention to it, that’s not completely true. For a few days? Maybe. But not for a whole season or summer. It’s simply impossible to ignore.

“I would say everything is motivation for him,” Mazzulla said. “I enjoy watching him when he works. He has a huge growth mindset and he’s going to look to dig deep into weaknesses that he wants to get better at, makes his strengths better, never skips a detail. I would say he’s one of the higher-motivated guys I’ve seen, just the way he works.”

The ‘details’ were on full display last night.

Arguably the most pivotal possession of the game happened with 2:40 left in the third quarter and the Mavs trailing by 13. Dallas was trying to get Horford switched onto Doncic with a ball-screen, but Holiday fought over the screen and stayed glued to Doncic’s hip.

With two on the ball, this allowed Derrick Jones Jr. to slip into the middle of the floor. Knowing a lob was on the way, Brown was in ‘low man’ help position and rotated over to completely stifle Jones on the catch. Then, moments later, he rejected Jones again by rotating from the other side:

“JB is unreal on the perimeter,” Derrick White said. “He had two big-time blocks. He can just do everything on the basketball court and he has, like, no weaknesses on both sides. So, he’s big-time.”

Not even two minutes later, Brown saved the day once again as the low man. This time, it was Irving attacking out of pick-and-roll, targeting Horford. As Irving rejected the screen and got downhill, Brown knew it was his responsibility to step up and protect the rim.

 

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