BOSTON (AP) — There was a time when the narrative surrounding Jaylen Brown was that he was a redundant player on a Celtics team that formed its identity around rising superstar Jayson Tatum.
Despite recently being an All-Star on a team full of young, homegrown talent, Brown was viewed by outsiders as a potential trade chip that Boston could use to adjust a roster that failed to advance beyond the Conference Finals in its first five seasons.
Calls for throwing out the third overall pick of the 2016 draft grew louder after a tepid 18-21 start to the season under new coach Ime Udoka, which saw veteran Marcus Smart challenge the Celtics’ young stars.
Six months and a run to the NBA Finals later, Mr. Expendable is suddenly Mr. Indispensable as the Celtics seek their 18th championship.
“I have a hard time contemplating moments when I’m in the middle of a storm,” Brown said. “But everything, all the adversity, all the ups and downs and negative things, indirectly and directly, has helped get me to where I am.”
Brown averages 22.7 points and 7.3 rebounds as the top team in the first three games of the Finals. He delivered perhaps his best performance of the playoffs – 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists – when Boston defeated the Golden State Warriors 116-100 in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead.
His 17 points in the first quarter set the tone for Boston’s attack, but Udoka said Brown’s game had evolved on both sides.
“The versatility he gives us defensively is what it is. I think that can be done with Marcus and our big ones as well as with our big wings,” said Udoka. “We’re asking for more communication, more recognition and he’s one of the guys who’s improved in that regard over the season.”
While Brown was locked up during the playoffs, Tatum said he and Brown knew there were questions about whether they could coexist after the team’s slow start. He said they figured out how to combine their skills and personalities.
“I think all of those things helped, from saying we need to split the group, need to get rid of someone, or me and JB can’t play together,” Tatum said after Boston defeated Miami for the Eastern Conference title to win. “That spurred us on to find out and not run away from it. … That we trust each other and we had to get better.”
Under the tutelage of Udoka and his staff, both players have learned to outplay their teammates more.
Tatum has moved away from his earlier tendencies to rely on isolation and jump shots. Instead, he uses the doubles teams he draws to shuffle the ball to Brown and others to share the point load.
Brown has also changed his game. Against Golden State in particular, he cut inside, finding mismatches and picking his spots against the Warriors’ small lineups.
Smart said Brown and Tatum’s aggression became contagious.
“They are very adamant about what they want, what they do with the ball, how they make decisions and read,” Smart said. “They have grown and matured in that regard. They knew they had to take this step in order for us to reach our full potential. They took the challenge and they show it and it just proved itself.”
Brown was also a reassuring voice, reminding his teammates to block out distractions like Golden State’s Draymond Green’s attempts to rock the Celtics with his physical play.
On Jan. 31, at the start of the postseason turnaround in Boston, Brown tweeted, “The energy is going to change.” Given his recent performance, his words look less cryptic and more prophetic.
And Brown has shown more appreciation for his journey to becoming a Finale star.
“I feel like I wasn’t always put in the best position to be the best version of myself, and that’s helped me get better and work harder,” Brown said. “Everything I have learned and acquired here, directly or indirectly, has helped me and I think it will help me further. If I had to think, I’m just grateful for every single experience you go through because it just makes you who you are.”
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