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January 22, 2023

If you forget the Warriors aren’t the fastest, most explosive team on the field anymore, let Jaylen Brown remind you. He’s there to wall off Stephen Curry and fend off his dribble; chase down a cut from Klay Thompson and fly from behind to sting his layup attempt out of bounds; drive straight to – and through – Draymond Green on its way to a runner. He is there to make a great opponent of his age act.

For all the adjustments that can and will be made in these NBA Finals, there is little that can be done to account for the size and speed of Boston, and Brown in particular. Beginning in Game 2, Golden State backed away — out of dire necessity — from trying Thompson on Brown for Green to defend him whenever possible. This decision suffocated Brown the first time around, as Green proved to be brilliant, physical, and antagonistic all at once.

Brown responded by reviewing the tape, seeing all the game had to offer, then working on one of the best defensive players in the sport. Whatever strength Green brought to the mission dissipated once Brown started to pass him in Game 3. “That’s how I play,” Brown said Wednesday. “I feel like I can get past any defender who is in front of me.”

While largely true, that same mentality has also led the 25-year-old Celtics star to push throughout his young career and even in these playoffs. (Like, say, in the midst of a Boston meltdown that nearly cost them a Finals berth.) The fact that Brown can get where he wants on the floor makes it all the more crucial that he knows when not drive in traffic and when not settle for a quick pull-up. There’s a bigger game at stake, and Brown showed increasing mastery of it as he moved past Green in Game 3.

Part of that was speed, pure and simple. Part of that, in this case, was leverage.

Much is asked of Green in Golden State’s larger defensive strategy, to the point that many of his responsibilities are in direct competition with one another. It’s now his job to keep Brown a secret, and yet if Jayson Tatum has the ball on the other side of the floor, it’s also Green’s responsibility to clutter the paint and take his lanes away. But if Brown is involved in a screen, Draymond may have to switch to another Celtic instead. Then if the Boston greats lurk around the edge at any time, it’s too usually it’s up to Green to challenge them indoors, for the simple fact that so few other Warriors really can.

Many of Brown’s attacks in Game 3 came at the intersection of these bonds. Even when Green managed to help on the inside while recovering the perimeter to take the open 3, Brown responded by shifting his balance and passing Draymond, harnessing his frantic momentum.

It’s quite a reversal. Green is no stranger to playing cat and mouse in defense, but he’s usually the one who sets the bait and the trap. Brown and the Celtics rarely put him at a disadvantage; it takes a dangerous team to put Draymond in those many precarious positions and a sophisticated operator to get the best out of him as consistently as Brown did in Game 3.

” At the beginning of his career, [Brown] would come out and he was running around like a chicken with his head cut off,” Marcus Smart said. “We would make a joke with him about it. Now he really thinks about the game. He plays the game. He lets it come to him and it slows down for him.

It’s not always perfect. Brown isn’t above driving headlong into traffic or occasionally pulling over for inconsiderate jumpers, as is natural for a 20-year-old who’s still growing into his own. Still, like other talented wingers before him, Brown is learning that he’s explosive enough to dribble that he doesn’t have to rush. He can take his time, read the ground and pass or shoot over almost any defender the Warriors put in front of him.

Such is the advantage of being Golden State’s second priority. Brown doesn’t have to worry about getting rid of Andrew Wiggins, who blocked one of his jumpers in Game 3 before he could even take off. And the fact that it’s Green protecting him instead — against type and through positions — means Golden State’s best backline defender is already factored into every practice. Brown just doesn’t have to sort through the same layers of dedicated assist defense the Warriors put between Tatum and the rim. He thrives on the opportunities created by his position – as a second star, making things happen the way only a second star can.

“Since me [Udoka] was here, he wanted to put the ball in my hands more than at any other time in my career,” Brown said. “I’ve made giant strides in gaining this experience and things like that. Sometimes I do the wrong reading. I am human; I make mistakes. [But] I feel like if you put the ball in my hands, more often than not, I’m going to put us in a good position to win.

The most significant growth Brown has shown in these playoffs has not come from any particular skill, but from a better understanding of how to deploy his full range of abilities. He knows there is a time for spinning movements and backward steps, and a time for the easy attack. He sees the possibility of attacking a defender one-on-one, but directs his teammates into their spots first – as he did several times in Game 3 – to get the best spacing possible. He bounces back from a night of 5-for-17 shooting by better understanding the defender in front of him and the dynamics at play.

“He’s been challenged a lot this year, and he’s responding,” Al Horford said. “That’s the only thing I saw with him. That’s the thing I’m most proud of about him: the way he’s able to meet challenges, react and deliver.

After three games, Brown leads the Celtics in scoring (by one Hair) for these finals, but not in plans, even with Tatum operating more as a facilitator. He starts a few possessions in the corners, but finds dynamic ways to get out of it. The Warriors changed their defensive lineup specifically in response to those kinds of threats, and Brown twisted that adjustment to ring Golden State’s whole plan. In retrospect, Green’s swaggering physique against Brown in Game 2 looks more like a survival tactic. There is no point in hitting or grabbing or kicking an opponent. You do these things to get into someone’s head, to distract them from the fact that they hold all the cards.

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