BOSTON — Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown is fearless and not one to back down from a challenge, even if it’s defending the NBA’s best player: Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James.
It’s quite possible C’s coach Brad Stevens will include Brown in the group of players that will guard James during the Eastern Conference finals, which begin Wednesday night at TD Garden.
“I was definitely watching LeBron in the Finals, Eastern Conference finals. And now, I could potentially be guarding him,” Brown said after Boston’s Game 7 win against the Washington Wizards on Monday night. “It’s a blessing to be here. But I’m more ready than I’ve ever been, and I’m ready for whatever challenge anybody throws at me right now.”
Brown got some experience defending James during the regular season. In fact, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward with explosive athleticism and a long wingspan is an ideal player to go up against James. Perhaps even more valuable to Brown’s athletic and physical attributes are his instincts and defensive smarts.
Brown knows how to play pick-and-rolls, he rarely gets caught out of position, and his agility in moving his feet quickly to stay in front of guys on drives to the basket without fouling is impressive.
These smarts were on display in Brown’s first meeting with James on Nov. 8. At 1:43 in the video below, Brown explains to Marc D’Amico of Celtics.com how he anticipated a pass from James to Kyrie Irving and forced a turnover.
James will make an impact regardless of who’s guarding him — he’s too talented to score fewer than 20 points if he plays his normal 40-plus minutes. However, what Brown, or anyone else guarding James must do, is force him to take contested shots, preferably from the perimeter.
James hasn’t shot 40 percent or better from 3-point range since 2012-13. He also shot a career-low 67.4 percent from the free-throw line this season, so it’s important the Celtics make James earn it at the stripe.
Brown must make an impact at the offensive end of the floor, too. The Cavs likely will trap Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas and force him to pass to open guys on the perimeter. Brown shot 38 percent from beyond the arc post-All Star break, and he’ll need to consistently hit outside shots in this series. The Celtics’ bench played a pivotal role in beating the Wizards in the second round, and it should be a key part of any success they have versus Cleveland as well.
Brown also needs to be aggressive offensively, and that means using his quick first step on drives to the rim. He did this against James in that Nov. 8 matchup and threw down a powerful dunk.
Attacking the basket will collapse the defense and open up good looks for shooters on the perimeter, and it also would rack up fouls on the Cavs and put them in the penalty.
The Celtics won’t ask too much of Brown in this series. He’s still just a 20-year-old rookie. But Brown already has an NBA-type body and the intelligence needed to play a key role in this series, and he could be an important X-factor for the C’s if the Cavs are determined to shut down Thomas with constant double teams and trapping.
Thumbnail photo via Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports Images