How Jaylen Brown used Luka Dončić to improve: ‘I’m challenging myself to get better’

Back on January 22, the prospect of an NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks seemed far-fetched at best. The Mavericks, fresh off missing the Play-In Tournament last season, were sitting in eighth place at the time. So it didn’t cause much commotion when Jaylen Brown, after isolating against Luka Dončić in several 1-on-1 situations down the stretch of a Celtics win, followed that up by highlighting the importance of two-way play.

Brown didn’t take a direct verbal shot at Dončić or Kyrie Irving, but left enough room for listeners to wonder if he meant to throw at least a bit of shade at the Mavericks stars. While Dončić and Irving have always been mesmerizing offensive players, their defensive chops have come into question at times throughout the years (though not as much recently during Dallas’ surge). Even if Brown didn’t intend for his words that night to be taken as personal insults, he set the stage for the defensive challenge he wanted to take on deep in the playoffs — and, unknowingly, for what is now a likely finals matchup against Dončić and Irving. Even after dropping Game 4 to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night, the Mavericks hold a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference finals.

“I think we kind of glorify guys who can play one side of the ball but we don’t really pay respect to people who guard and play defense and get deflections and steals and change the game in that area,” Brown said then. “We only glorify the people who can score because that’s what the NBA has marketed. But basketball is both sides and the purity of it is that as I’m challenging myself to get better, I’m challenging myself to be the best that I can on both sides of the ball. And moments like this kind of prepare you for I think the long run. Being able to pick up guys full court, being able to get in guys’ jerseys for long durations of time kind of builds endurance for the playoffs and stuff like that.”

Brown, who took on the Dončić assignment in that January game, brought up how he spent some time last season picking up James Harden full court during a playoff series against Philadelphia. At the time, Brown said he wasn’t in the same level of physical shape. He hadn’t fully embraced the challenge of becoming a defensive stopper, either. He took on more of that responsibility this season, asking Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla for the toughest assignments regularly. By the time the January meeting with Dončić and the Mavericks arrived, Brown said it was “normalized” for him to guard an opponent’s best player.

Dončić still racked up a mighty stat line of 33 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in the Celtics’ 119-110 win, but needed 30 field goal attempts and 11 free throw attempts to score that much. Brown tallied 34 points on 13-for-24 shooting with nine free-throw attempts. A look at the film showed six of his made field goals came with Dončić as the primary defender, including a pull-up jumper over the five-time All-NBA guard with two minutes left to put the Celtics ahead by double digits. Brown said Boston wanted to put pressure on Dončić and Irving while the Mavericks were on defense.

“I think it makes them tired on the other side,” Brown said. “So just there’s two sides of the ball. Being able to apply pressure on both, you’ve gotta be at a certain level of shape to be able to do that. So we want to put an emphasis on attacking and being aggressive at both sides of the ball.”

Months before the Finals, that statement from Brown might have revealed the Celtics’ strategy for the potential upcoming series. They should want to hunt Irving and Dončić partly because, with the heavy load they carry on offense, fatigue could eventually weigh them down. In the Finals, Brown will likely have a substantial burden himself on both ends of the court. If the Mavericks knock off the Timberwolves, he could be the primary matchup for Dončić as he was back in January. If Brown is, he hinted back then that he will want to pick Dončić up full court. It would be a win for the Celtics if Dončić tires before Brown does.

The Celtics would have other options to defend Dončić and Irving, including Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, who both made second-team all-defense. As great as those guys are defensively, Brown could be the best suited to hold up against Dončić’s combination of size and strength. He spent significant time guarding Dončić during two regular-season games against Dallas. The Celtics won both of those games, but the Mavericks’ defense transformed later in the season. Over their final 20 regular-season games, they ranked first in defensive efficiency while going 16-4. Entering Tuesday, Dallas had a more than respectable 111.4 defensive rating during the postseason.

For Boston, Brown has taken pride in leveling up his defense this season. He has wanted matchups like Dončić. After closing out the Pacers with an Eastern Conference finals sweep, Brown said it hurt him to fall short of an all-defensive team. He believed he deserved that honor for the commitment he put in on that end of the court.

It would probably mean more to Brown to win a championship. Knowing now that the Celtics could very well tangle with the Mavericks for the title, Brown’s postgame comments from that January win are even more interesting in retrospect.

“I think there’s some great two-way players in this game,” Brown said then. “I don’t think it’s a lost art. I think there’s some guys who take it seriously and emphasize both sides of the ball. I just think it’s not as emphasized, it’s not as celebrated, it’s not as recognized amongst everyday fans or casual fans. It’s only about who’s got a bigger bag on offense, who’s a better shot maker. That’s kind of what we pay attention to in today’s time, but guys who can do both, guys who can get stops and then go on the other end and do that, I think those guys are (few and far) between.”

(Photo: Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

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