Forsberg: Jaylen Brown could be key to corralling Mitchell, Cavs

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When Jaylen Brown publicly declared some lofty defensive goals for both himself and his fellow Boston starters before the start of the 2023-24 season, Al Horford’s ears perked up.

“At the beginning [of the season] you can say something and, for me, I was very observant. [I said,] ‘I’m gonna sit back and I’m gonna see what happens here,’” said Horford. “And I’ve just been impressed with what I’ve seen from Jaylen.”

Brown wanted Boston’s entire core to earn All-Defense votes and pondered the possibility of muscling his own way onto a team himself. That seemed like an outlandish goal on a Celtics squad that already features an All-Defense backcourt in Jrue Holiday and Derrick White.

But Brown’s defensive play really resonated with Horford, who believes it set the tone for the entire group.

“[Brown is] not shying away from anybody,” said Horford, who, despite his own defensive talents, has only earned one All-Defense nod back in 2018. “Any position, 1 through 5, he’s trying to guard. He’s trying to have an impact and It’s been felt. So he’s done it and that inspires the rest of our group. It’s put us in a really good position.”

As the Celtics prepare to tip off Round 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brown’s defense could be key to Boston’s success. Brown likely will draw a heavy dose of defending Cavaliers star guard Donovan Mitchell, whose scoring outbursts sometimes feel like Cleveland’s lone road map to making this series interesting.

One year ago, after James Harden’s 45-point outburst helped the Sixers steal Game 1 of an East semifinals matchup in Boston, the Celtics dispatched Brown to defend the former MVP. Brown took on the challenge, attaching himself at Harden’s hip for the rest of the series. What’s more, all that defensive energy expended didn’t impact Brown’s offensive output, with Boston’s All-NBA wing still putting up 22.9 points per game while shooting 54.1 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc.

The Celtics could use a second-round replay. Mitchell’s scoring helped the Cavaliers outlast the Magic in Round 1. And while Brown and Mitchell are friends off the court — their bubble friendship was a popular storyline back in 2020 — Brown seems ready for the challenge.

“Ain’t no friends in the playoffs,” said Brown. “You got to be ready to play. That’s it.”

Brown knows the challenge ahead for him and his Celtics teammates.

“Donovan is just explosive, strong, a three-level scorer,” said Brown. “I think his strength gives him an advantage on a lot of defenders, and the way he changes direction. He’s a good basketball player.”

But it’s Brown’s combination of size and strength that allows him to bother elite scoring guards. Once a defender who could get caught napping when dispatched against off-the-ball shooters, Brown seems to save some of his most engaged defense for when he’s tasked with defending at the point of attack.

Brown limited opponents to 44.8 percent shooting for the season, a top-20 mark among the 156 players who defended at least 10 field goal attempts per game. Brown held opponents to 2.4 percent below expected output overall.

Among the 70 players 6-foot-7 or shorter who met that same high-volume criteria, Brown finished tied for fifth in field goal percentage differential. The only players ahead of him were Draymond Green, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, and Anthony Edwards. His differential left him tied with the defensive-minded tandem of Alex Caruso and Lu Dort.

Guards averaged just 6.7 points per game against Brown this season while shooting 43.9 percent overall and 33.7 percent beyond the arc. What’s more, Brown’s defense gets better closer to the rim, with him holding all opponents to 6 percent below expected output inside of six feet from the hoop.

The list of players whom Brown spent the most time per game defending this season reads like an All-Star roster. Edwards, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Dejounte Murray, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson, and Mitchell take up eight of the top nine spots (with Stanley Umude sneaking in based off one game of matchup time).

And teammates continue to gush about the way Brown has backed up his desire to be viewed as more than just a scorer.

“It’s unbelievable,” said White. “He’s picking up point guards, he guards bigs. Just an athletic freak. He can guard so many different positions and he just really bought in this year. I think he was a good defender before the season but just taking it to that next level, just consistently night in, night out, and wanting those challenges. Taking on those challenges and stepping up big time.”

Horford said late in the season that he thought Brown truly deserved All-Defense consideration. He doubled down during our recent chat, going so far as to say he believes that Brown will earn that spot when the teams are announced later this month. Squeezing as many as three Celtics onto a 10-man team seems ambitious, but Horford glows detailing the ways that Brown has elevated his play.

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The Celtics set an NBA record for offensive rating this season but it was Brown who preached, from the very first day the team convened for Media Day in September, that defense had to be the calling card for this team to reach its ultimate goal and deliver elusive Banner 18.

And defense — maybe even Brown’s defense — could be key to making sure the Celtics motor through a second-round series against Mitchell and the Cavs.

Brown spent the second most time on Mitchell in the regular season. The numbers were decent: nine points in 8:29 of total matchup time with Mitchell connecting on 3-of-6 shots with one turnover. Only Jayson Tatum had better numbers among Boston’s core players. Brown thrived as a primary defender against Darius Garland (team-high 11:30 of matchup time, three points on 1-of-6 shooting).

Regardless of defensive assignment, the Celtics need Brown to leave his mark on that end in this series. For his part, Brown admits its validating to hear his teammates gush about the way his defense went up a level this year. He hopes that voters took notice, too, before casting their ballots.

“It was a challenge I put on myself,” said Brown. “I feel like I’ve been not only taking those challenges but meeting the requirements … I feel like I’ve had a big impact on the side of the ball, with just being able to create havoc.”

The Celtics need another helping of Brown’s defensive havoc to aid their quest to the loftiest of team goals.

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