May 25, 2024

Jaylen Brown says playing nice in NBA playoffs is over: ‘Embrace that villain’

BOSTON – Late Wednesday night, after the Boston Celtics had turned off their celebratory postgame music, Jeff Van Gundy mimicked raising a banner on one side of the team’s locker room. If this was college basketball, the senior consultant told a few nearby players, the Celtics would have been raising another Final Four banner.

Van Gundy, who reached the conference finals twice during a well-respected head coaching career, was sharing his perspective on the Celtics’ recent success. During a short conversation, he reminded the players how difficult it is to win one playoff game, let alone a series. In other words, he seemed to be saying, appreciate the accomplishments when they come. The Celtics have not won a championship since 2008, but, by closing out the Cleveland Cavaliers in a five-game second-round series, they secured an Eastern Conference finals berth Wednesday for the sixth time in the last eight seasons.

Such sustained relevance is rare. Jaylen Brown, whom Boston drafted in 2016, has been part of all those “Final Four” berths. The Celtics’ win against Cleveland gave him more conference finals appearances (six) than 13 franchises, though the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets will each have a chance to tie Brown’s mark in the coming days. He has advanced past the first round in every season of his eight-year career but one — and, in the lone exception, he missed Boston’s first-round series after season-ending wrist surgery. With Brown on the roster, the Celtics have almost always been in the contending mix, though they have never won the ring he so badly wants.

“It’s easy to keep (the success) in perspective when you’ve lost all six times,” Brown said. “Yeah, it’s a blessing, but what keeps it in perspective is that I haven’t gotten over that hump but one time to go to the (NBA) Finals. So that keeps everything in perspective right there.”

Brown first reached the Eastern Conference finals as a 20-year-old rookie playing a minor role. At 27, he is now a three-time All-Star, a reigning member of the All-NBA second team and one of the highest-paid players in basketball. His team’s consistent success through the years has helped keep him in the spotlight, but the attention hasn’t always been positive. While sitting in front of his locker, he reflected on how he once struggled to handle the pressures of starring for such a prominent team before eventually learning how to ignore the scrutiny that accompanies the job.

“It’s a blessing,” Brown told The Athletic. “There’s definitely been pressure but you handle it and you take it one step at a time. You don’t give in. To me, there’s only one direction you can go and that’s growing and getting better. That’s how I kind of look at it. I block out everything at times and just be the best version of yourself, add value to your team.”

Jaylen Brown has used the defeats of playoffs past to help propel him this season. (Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

If the Celtics are under a less forgiving lens than their fellow contenders, that’s one price they pay for being so close to championship level over the years, but never quite good enough. They have accomplished enough to raise the expectations on them to championship or bust. They have won enough to ensure their greatest failures have come on the biggest stages, in front of the most eyeballs. They have lived near the top long enough to provide all the critics with plenty of opportunities to see their flaws. At times, it has been easy to pick them apart.

“It is what it is,” Brown said. “I’ve accepted that. Personally, the amount of criticism you get, no matter how well you do, it’s always going to be the criticism that comes first. I’ve struggled with that at times, but as I get older in my career, it is what it is. I come out, I put my best foot forward, I get better every year, I add to winning, I make my teammates around me better, I empower my teammates around me and I celebrate the city as best I possibly can. It is what it is but I’m grateful to be here.”

Even now, with the Celtics having followed a 64-win regular season by racking up a dominant plus-12.8 net rating over the first two rounds of the playoffs, plenty of the discussion about them has focused on their potential downfalls. And that’s after seven double-digit wins in two quick series wins. Imagine what the analysts will say if the Celtics ever actually struggle later in the postseason.

Despite a Game 2 loss in each series, the Celtics have cruised so far. They dispatched the Miami Heat without Jimmy Butler in five games, then did the same to the Cavaliers without Jarrett Allen. Boston led Cleveland 2-1 before a calf injury sidelined Donovan Mitchell for the remainder of the second-round series. The Cavaliers still made the final two games of the series competitive, but the Celtics controlled the key moments of each game.

Despite the bad injury luck for their opponents, Brown didn’t want to hear anything about the idea the Celtics have had an easy path so far. (For their part, the Celtics closed out the Heat and beat the Cavaliers without starting center Kristaps Porziņģis.)

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as an easy path,” Brown said. “We’ve gotta come out and play. … I’ve got no comment on that (notion). And we’re not going to apologize for winning.”

To keep on winning, the Celtics will need to beat either the New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.

“‘Definitely gotta get ready to just bring it,” Brown said. “Both of those teams play hard as s—. That’s what you’ve gotta be ready for. It’s just, how bad do you want it? Those dudes are out there putting their lives on the line, it seems like. They’re diving for loose balls, pulling hamstrings, whatever. How much are we willing to do that? That’s going to be the key.”

The Celtics have usually been up to the challenge during Brown’s tenure. Only 13 active players have more postseason wins than his 66. Still, his playoff runs have always ended badly. During last season’s Eastern Conference finals, he committed eight turnovers in a Game 7 loss to the Heat. He left that game knowing he needed to tighten up his skills.

If the Celtics win a championship, it might be because of how much stronger past playoff losses have made them. They have gifted Brown with valuable experience. They have provided him with a mirror to see his weaknesses closely. They have given the critics fodder, and in turn, forced Brown to add another layer of resiliency.

“Whatever you do is going to be scrutinized — or no matter how good you are, it’s never going to be enough or (bring) any praise or any media attention,” Brown said. “It’s tough, but at the same time it is what it is. You’ve gotta embrace that villain. And as I’m getting older I’m starting to embrace it more. Embracing not giving a f— whether they see (his value) or don’t see it, whether they appreciate it or don’t appreciate it. I’m focused on helping my team, helping my family, helping the city and I go from there.”

How do the Celtics keep rolling up deep playoff runs? Not many teams can take hits and keep on building like they have. Their roster has been overhauled several times during this run of Eastern Conference finals appearances. With Brown and Jayson Tatum, Boston has shuffled through three head coaches, all of whom have taken the team to the third playoff round at least once. Some teams fade after crushing losses. Not the Celtics. Not so far, at least. They seem to keep coming back stronger no matter how much pain they endure. And they have experienced plenty of pain over Brown’s eight seasons, some of it self-inflicted.

Brown has come back stronger, too.

“It’s just a mindset where I don’t care if you boo or celebrate,” Brown said. “I don’t allow the emotion of appreciation or the emotion of scrutiny to have any effect whatsoever.”

Through 10 playoff games, Brown has averaged 23.1 points per game on 55.4 percent shooting. He has cut down his turnovers while scoring more efficiently than ever. He has worked hard on his all-around game. After he attempted only nine shots Wednesday in an 11-point outing, he said Van Gundy told him nobody would give him the proper credit for how sharp a game he played. Brown finished with seven assists, including three in the fourth quarter as the Celtics pulled away.

They have reached the Eastern Conference finals again. The pressure over the years could have broken them, but didn’t.

“It almost makes you stoic a little bit,” Brown said. “I feel like I’ve adopted that over the last years. And I’m embracing it even more: Just be a robot. Just come out here and do what you’ve gotta do. And that’s it.”

(Top photo of Jaylen Brown: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)