April 15, 2024

Jaylen Brown takes on Zion Williamson as Celtics defense ends losing streak

NEW ORLEANS — As Zion Williamson has found his form, the New Orleans Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s better teams since the All-Star break. He’s a terrorizer of defenses across the league, a wrecking ball that takes a whole team to subdue.

But Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla needed Jaylen Brown to handle his business and this one mostly on his own: no hard double teams, just Brown versus Williamson, a bruising heavyweight battle.

But Brown is much closer to a welterweight in this league compared to the Pelicans star. He often takes on guards and wings in his defensive matchups, but lately, he’s wanted the bigs. He made it clear after Boston’s loss in Denver several weeks ago that he wants more reps guarding Nikola Jokić.

And as the Celtics went down by double digits for the first time since that March 7 loss to the Nuggets, Brown had to show what he was made of. He had to keep Williamson from scoring.

The result: one measly point. Just 11 for the Pelicans as a team in that third quarter, with the Celtics eventually pushing out to a 20-plus point lead like they often do.

This isn’t something new for Brown. Early in his career, he saw so many types of matchups.

“Brad (Stevens) had me locked in on shooters and chasing JJ Redick off screens,” Brown said after Boston’s 104-92 win. “But also we switched and I’d guard guys like KP, I was switching onto people like Anthony Davis, and that’d be my matchup even early on in my career. I’ve always had the defensive versatility to do both. … So I think it’s no different than kind of what I was doing early in my career, just doing that at a higher level.”

On this night, Brown had to take on Williamson and make sure he didn’t destroy the defense. That gave everyone else the freedom to handle their own business.

“Different strategy than usual. But whatever the team needs, I feel like that’s something my team relies on me to do now, so I’ll take it with honor and responsibility. That was my matchup and I wanted to make sure we made it tough on him, and I think we did.”

Brown said Williamson presents a difficult test of strength because he is so strong and explosive, but also crafty around the basket. In the past, Brown may have gotten into foul trouble or have some lapses in technique or focus. But he stayed locked in.

“You got to be strong enough to take the initial bump, but you also got to be quick enough to stay in front of him, which makes him a tough matchup,” Brown said. “You don’t see a lot of guys like Zion in the world.”

Guarding Williamson came with a price, as Brown was feeling the soreness by the time he stepped to the podium after the game. He first hurt his knee slipping on a wet spot, which he shook off. Then he injured his left hand going for a loose ball in the second quarter after stripping Williamson.

He was icing the hand in the locker room and said after the game that he will get it looked at after the team returns to Boston on Tuesday. The All-Star said the injury has been bothering him for a bit now. Brown had surgery on a torn ligament in that wrist in May 2021 and missed the postseason.

But Saturday night, the defense was mostly centered around Brown knocking Williamson off his spot early, then directing him into help. That let his teammates sit in their gaps to stay home on shooters while being in a good position to contest.

They made a concerted effort to leave specific Pelicans open and Mazzulla acknowledged the strong turnaround was in part a result of that gamble paying off.

When it was Horford and Porziņģis working together on Williamson, Porziņģis would do a nice job of hiding under the screen so he could wall off Williamson when he made his move. He ended up with four blocks, his most since the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on February 1.

“We just turned it up. We knew there’s another gear that we need to get to and those guys came to play,” Porziņģis said. “They were hungry, started off great. I don’t think we started off, like, relaxed, but they were just really on and we had to respond. Rest of the game it was a completely different story. So just shows that we can get into that next gear.”

It took the Pelicans running all over them in the first quarter to create that spark. But Porziņģis made it clear that Boston’s response wasn’t necessarily aimed at grounding the Pelicans before they took off, but just their responsibility to their own standards.

“I mean, we have our own battle, no? The opponent is there and we believe we can beat anybody, right?” Porziņģis said. “It’s our own battle right now to just play up to that intensity every night. … But just we have to show up every night at this level and it’s on us. It’s us. It’s us if we just do our job, then the result is this.”

Boston snapped its two-game losing streak, meaning they have about two weeks left to go the season without a three-game losing streak. But when Porziņģis was asked about that fun fact of consistency, he started listing off how prior champions had bigger losing streaks on their way to the title.

“Those are like critical moments, maybe not the organization, but like fans around it are like, ‘Oh my God, this is falling apart. This is not a championship-caliber team.’ And then they go and win the chip,” Porziņģis said. “So it doesn’t tell too much. But winning is a nice habit to have, for sure.”

(Photo of Jaylen Brown and Zion Williamson: Stephen Lew / USA Today)