2018 NBA Playoffs, Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1: Minimizing the Ego, Silencing the Noise, and Scoring at Will (Ode to Jaylen Brown)

In February, SB Nation’s Paul Flannery wrote a great profile on Jaylen Brown that described Jaylen’s meditation practice and mental strength training. Before I get into this, let me preface it by saying that I’ve spent a decade learning about the power of meditation, calming the mind, breathing, and understanding the power of focusing on what I can control, rather than dwelling in what I cannot. To read about Jaylen Brown’s embrace of meditation endeared me even more to the electric Celtics wing with the neat flat-top and the serious hops.

One more bit of context: before the Celtics selected Brown with the third pick in the June 2016 NBA Draft, some hoops experts were skeptical about his devotion to basketball…because he dared to publicly embrace his love of chess…and take graduate courses at Berkeley. Basically, he refused to be one dimensional, and let his curious mind experience new things in a new environment. Freshman year at college should be this way for everyone. Instead, jock stereotypes dominate and curious athletes are reduced to spouting to cliches in order to protect their reputations. Jaylen chose Cal in large part because of the opportunity to learn. The irony of that skepticism is that Jaylen’s mind, his mental toughness, ability to absorb new information, and stay immersed in the moment (one of the key tenets of the Celtics’ “Next play,” “Next game,” philosophy) has enabled him to reach new heights over the last month of playoff games. Coach Brad Stevens and his staff constantly stress that each player can only control what they can control. “Hitting singles, not home runs,” is one phrase that gets repeated. That’s a term that some might think applies only to the player with the ball and making the right decision, not trying to do it all yourself. But the idea that the Celtics need not gamble on low-percentage steals and keep their tight defensive rotations also applies. “Hitting singles” harkens back to team defense and a collective effort.

The Spurs lengthy Duncan-led dominance was all about singles. On both offense and defense. When Bruce Bowen and Danny Green hit the biggest shots on a team with Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and later Kawhi…you see the results of that philosophy. Swing the ball. Hit the open man. Take the open three…in rhythm…we have confidence in you. No doubts.

The Celtics’ collective refusal to get caught up in the noise that surrounded them since Opening Night and Hayward’s injury speaks to their much documented resilience. The ability to embrace the playoff atmosphere derives from a complete trust in each other and in the strategies laid out before them. The way Stevens and his staff minimize weaknesses and embrace the strengths of each player is remarkable…but people often forget…they drafted the right players…the teachable, mentally tough young men that have blossomed earlier in their careers than most NBA players do. They’ve been doing it for a while. Avery Bradley. Marcus Smart. Jaylen Brown. Jayson Tatum.

Rookie Year

As a 20 year-old rookie, Jaylen Brown came into the NBA without a steady jumper. Scouts focused on that question before the draft. It was one of the reasons Brandon Ingram went 2nd to the Lakers, instead of Jaylen. Here’s the context, Brown’s athleticism enabled him to get baskets however he wanted to throughout his high school experience. His hops allowed him to dunk on everyone if he preferred. His college hoops experience in his one year at Cal (graduate courses notwithstanding) was up-and-down. Cal’s offense was full of three-point shooters and was varied and diversified. In other words, creating off the dribble and getting wide-open corner threes off of passes were not common occurrences. And perhaps he was still trying to hard to show what he could do. Imagine the pressure a likely lottery pick faces during that one year of college. Scouts watching every game. Fear of injury in the back of your mind. Trying to show everything, but keep from being labeled selfish.

After selecting Brown, the Celtics began the focus on his shooting. By the end of his rookie year, his season-ending 34% mark from deep showed promise, but look closer and that number was 38% after the All-Star break. Learning. Adapting. The Isaiah Thomas-led crew was getting him more wide-open looks…and he took advantage.

Resilience

Fast forward to Opening Night. Signing Gordon Hayward meant that Brown and Tatum would be sharing the ball with Kyrie and Hayward. That they wouldn’t be asked to do more than play aggressive, switchable defense using their length and lateral quickness. That scoring would be secondary. Instead, Tatum and Brown immediately became necessary on both ends.

Fast forward again to March. Kyrie’s knee infection. Marcus Smart’s thumb. Terry Rozier steps into place. Tatum and Brown step further into the spotlight. Embrace the opportunity. Fearless. Control what you can control. Take the right shots. Its not all on you (even though more of it is).

Al Horford is the glue. His play throughout the playoffs has been extraordinary. His adaptability is truly rare. Horford naturally fills in the open spaces. Whatever is needed.

Boston-Cleveland, Game 1: First Quarter (Jaylen and Al)

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Jaylen Brown. Al Horford. First Quarter. Game Over. (courtesy NBA.com)

From the very tip of Game 1, Brown’s impact was felt. He gathered the tip about 40 feet from the hoop, just over mid-court. He surveyed the path to the hoop. Took one short dribble, hesitated…and then exploded past his defender, getting to the rim for a driving lay-up six seconds into the game. I hadn’t even sat down yet. Rewind. What just happened?

Be aggressive. Control what you can control. Do not hesitate. Do not waver.

After the first timeout, five minutes into the game, the Celtics had a 11–7 lead. After a Tatum-to-cutting-Jaylen free-throw line jumper pushed the lead to 6, Al Horford went to work and scored the next 8 consecutive points. Suddenly the Celtics were leaving the vaunted Cavs in the dust. 21–7. Zero of the Cavs shots in that span came within 25 feet of the rim. Those 2 minutes and 25 seconds defined Game 1. The Garden crowd going berserk. LeBron complaining to the refs. The Celtics defense snuffing out any hope Cleveland had in Game 1.

I’m sure the Cavs will make this a series, regardless of Game 1. I’m sure LeBron will have multiple 35+ point games. He was absolutely ridiculous in demolishing the demoralized Raptors. It certainly helped that Toronto couldn’t adjust to the Korver-Love-LeBron orchestra.

We go back to the idea of staying in the moment. If any team can stay balanced, not let ego dominate after annihilating their opponent, this Celtics team can. People will begin to talk about the Finals. Most will be focused on the Rockets-Warriors epic, calling it the NBA’s real version of the Finals. None of that matters. What matters is the next possession. The next 2:25 second stretch that could determine Game 2. Jaylen Brown will be ready. He’ll be eyeing the rim, waiting for his moment to attack, and draining corner threes if that’s what the defense gives him.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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