Jaylen Brown takes over at the rim to lead Celtics to win in Game 1 of NBA Finals

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BOSTON — Eight years ago, Jaylen Brown was booed when he was drafted. The Celtics fans might not have fully understood what or who they were booing, but he wasn’t the guy they expected.

And yet, he said that night, “I am going to war for this city.”

Ever since, he has steadily become the pulse of the Celtics. But then with the season on the line in a Game 7 last year against Miami, he fell short of expectations. In the biggest moment, Jayson Tatum got hurt, Brown had to step up, and the Celtics fell apart.

It was Brown’s big moment to show he could put the franchise on his back, but it wasn’t enough. According to Tatum, that was their wake-up call.

“Maybe I just expected that after we lost in 2022 that it was guaranteed that we were just going to keep coming back, and this is like our time,” Tatum said. “Last year it was just kind of a wake-up call to not take anything for granted, because you never know how many opportunities that you might have.”

Tatum and Brown knew they had to get better. Brown said he was going to be one of the league’s best defenders and he wanted to become known for taking care of the ball. Tatum wanted to sit back and manage the game at a level few can do. It got them back to the NBA Finals, even without Kristaps Porziņģis.

Facing a healthy contender for the first time this postseason, the Celtics built a massive lead against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the finals. But Luka Dončić and the Mavs were picking it apart over the third quarter.

The Celtics’ 29-point lead was down to just eight points when Dončić buried a 3 and head coach Joe Mazzulla called timeout with 4:27 remaining in the third quarter. This was a moment when the Celtics of old could have tensed up and let the lead slip. Tatum said he felt excited nervousness before the game, like a kid on the first day of school.

Then just as the nerves could be setting in, Jaylen Brown stepped up and helped the Celtics claim Game 1 over the Mavericks 107-89. He has demonstrated throughout the season that he can drive the team’s confidence in the trying moments. Not much on the court seems to phase him these days, which has helped him become the team’s vocal leader when things start to go awry.

When the players returned to the bench, Brown turned to his teammates and said something nobody said about the Celtics in the past: They are the experienced team and they know how to take back control.

“We just said, just breathe. The game is starting now. Just breathe,” Brown said postgame. “This is a moment where our experience shines through. Just breathe, just keep playing basketball.”

There’s an irony to Brown saying their experience shines through. Even last year, their wake-up call was borne of that ever-growing understanding of the big moments. The last time they were in the finals against the Golden State Warriors, it was obvious experience was not on their side. This time it was different.

Brown told his team that if they had an open shot to take it with confidence. Take care of the basketball, get some stops, just navigate Dallas’ run and stick to the plan.

“When they cut (the lead) to eight, that’s when the game started,” Brown said. “I liked how our team responded. We stayed composed. Offensively, we got to our spacing and was able to push that lead back out and make some plays on offense. That was a big third quarter.”

The team responded, but Brown was at the center of it.

When the Celtics sent two defenders at Dončić and the Mavs guard managed to toss a lob up to the high-flying Derrick Jones Jr., Brown came out of nowhere to knock it out of the air. Then when Jones got the ball back, Brown denied him again. A few moments later, Kyrie Irving got deep into the paint, then Brown rejected him as well and saluted the crowd.

“I think just, being his teammate for seven years, we’ve been in so many big games, we’ve been in so many big moments,” Tatum said. “And (he’s) just always being there to answer the call in those moments, especially on both ends of the floor.”

This performance showcased everything Brown has become. He demanded respect as a defender all season, then his defense took over this game after Dončić made the Celtics sweat. Brown said he had grown into a playmaker, so he snaked his way through the Mavs defense to set his teammates up for open 3s.

“JB’s unreal on the perimeter,” teammate Derrick White said. “He can just do everything on the basketball court and he has like no weaknesses on both sides.”

As Brown took over on defense and got his teammates involved on offense, the momentum shifted swiftly. He creates these big moments throughout a game that swing things in a flash.

“His energy is infectious. It gets you hyped up,” Sam Hauser told The Athletic. “Like, when he’s dunking on dudes, making big plays, you just get excited for him and our team and that energy feeds everyone.”

After the game, Brown wasn’t interested in taking credit for the turnaround. He praised his teammates for the collective effort to limit Dončić to one assist, but said they can’t let him get 30 points again.

“What you saw tonight is kind of the challenge he took for himself coming into the year,” Mazzulla said of Brown. “Not wanting to be defined by one thing. Wanting to make plays. Wanted to be a well-rounded player and get better and better.”

This won’t be the last time Brown has to step up in this series. Boston’s gameplan focused on keeping Dončić and Irving cut off from their passing outlets and taking away corner 3s. The Mavs will find ways to create easier shots and get some of their other players going.

“It’s not going to be perfect. It’s a long series,” Brown said. “I expect them, Game 2, to come out with tremendous force and maybe try to hit us in the mouth. So that’s the game. When a team goes on a run, you got to manage it, you got to stay composed, and you got to keep playing basketball.”

The Celtics showed they have the experience to be prepared when that moment comes back around. Brown is showing he has become a complete enough player to lead them through whatever Dallas brings their way.

Brown became the first Celtics player to have 20 points, three blocks, and three steals in a finals game, per Stathead.

“It means nothing,” Brown said. “You just get ready for the next one.”

Brown spent all year clamoring for credit for the player he has become. But he knows the only validation that matters now, is winning.

(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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