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Jaylen Brown’s stunning collapse in NBA Playoffs leaves Celtics with hard decisions

Jaylen Brown reached a new low in the NBA Playoffs, and leaves the Celtics with big questions.

Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals

On the very first possession of Game 7 between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, Jayson Tatum rolled his ankle attacking the basket. Tatum battled through to log 42 minutes, but was clearly limited, taking just 13 shots, routinely grimacing and lacking his usual mobility. The injury thrust Jaylen Brown in a grander offensive role, both with regard to usage rate and on-ball responsibilities. By the end of the night Brown had coughed up eight turnovers and scored 19 points on 8-of-23 shooting as Boston was routed, 103-84, to end its season.

Game 7 capped off a disastrous series for Brown. After averaging 24.6 points on 62.9 percent true shooting through the first two rounds, he stumbled to 19.0 points on 46.4 percent true shooting and recorded 24 assists to 25 turnovers. He went 7-of-43 beyond the arc and only attempted 21 free throws. A couple of good showings were sprinkled in, but the Heat stymied him and exploited his most glaring offensive shortcomings. It’s a major reason they’re now prepping for Game 1 of the NBA Finals while Brown and the Celtics are making offseason arrangements.

One of Brown’s hallmarks as a scorer is his prowess in transition and early offense. He crushed the Philadelphia 76ers in those contexts during the Eastern Conference semifinals and thrives when the defense is yet to organize itself. Miami, though, was hip to that and consistently prevented those contexts from favoring him.

The Heat set their defense promptly, confronted Brown in the initial stages of a possession, and loaded bodies in the lane and on his drives. They employ a no-middle scheme that prioritizes help around the nail and from the strong-side to barricade lanes downhill. That strategy foiled Brown as the likes of Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Cody Martin, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo collapsed on him. Rarely did he nab a few easy buckets to kickstart the night. It was a testament to Miami’s cohesion and discipline, and a magnification of Brown’s flaws that create a reliance on those early offense opportunities.

With quick-hitting chances dried up, Brown was left to fend in the half-court, where Miami’s defense remained stingy, multifaceted, and perplexing. According to Cleaning The Glass, 36 percent of his shots occurred at the rim in the first two rounds. That number fell to 28 percent during the Eastern Conference Finals. He converted 69 percent of his field goals at the rim against the Sixers and Hawks before making 63 percent of them against the Heat. His free-throw rate was .229 through two series and declined to .157 this past round. Free throws, shots at the rim and transition volume are high-value currencies. Miami ensured Brown enjoyed far fewer of those treats.

A considerable portion of his struggles stem from longstanding weak points of his game amplified by a roster and scheme designed to target them. Miami could flood help to him because he’s not an adept on-the-move playmaker and wouldn’t spray feeds to Boston’s fleet of floor-spacers. It could crowd him and get into his body because his handle is quite precarious — particularly going to his left — when operating downhill or through contact and he was unable to chart those waters seamlessly. These are two of his most prevalent offensive issues. By exploiting them so often, the Heat multiplied their cumbersome impact.

Brown’s kickout passing improved as the series progressed. Yet his handle isn’t something to remedy on the fly and that hamstrung how he could navigate traffic and maneuver where he wished. Whether it was missing passing windows, shoehorning a drive when there wasn’t space for one or tossing up challenging shots, his decision-making did not bear effective offense, especially for someone carrying a 30 percent usage rate. So much of what he did looked very arduous, likely because it was very arduous.

Not only do the Heat deserve substantial praise for the scheme and its execution, but their scouting, understanding and manipulating of Brown’s tendencies were incredible. They knew his moves and the process leading up to them, which they seized advantage of at various points, illuminated below by a sampling of wins for their defense.

On the first clip, Butler is aware that Brown likes to make contact with his defender before pivoting into a turnaround jumper, so he pulls the chair and spurs a turnover as Brown folds to the ground. On the next play, Martin and Adebayo are ready for the Marcus Smart-to-Brown backdoor cut that Boston loves going to in transition (Miami repeatedly snuffed this one out). Then, Vincent is sitting on Brown’s between-the-legs move, primed for it as soon as Brown tries to swipe him away with his off-arm. Lastly, Robinson anticipates the stepback three and erases it.

Maybe, I’m making a mountain out of a molehill with those instances. Nonetheless, the Heat appeared well-prepared for Brown’s habits and preferences, and rode that fluency into quite the defensive clinic at his expense.

Part of Brown’s demise was the result of his frigid 16.3 percent clip from deep. Prior to this series, he was 33-of-70 on long balls prior in the playoffs, so regression weighed on him like a piano hurling down from above (he ended the playoffs at 38.8 percent). To Miami’s credit, it contested many of his looks punctually and its interior defense cornered him into settling for some audacious, shaky triples as well. Regression may have been a primary force, but it was certainly not a lone wolf either. He also seemed to be nursing a left wrist injury, though didn’t want that to be an excuse for his performance. A confluence of factors were in play here.

This series should not serve as an entire referendum on Brown. He is still an excellent player and will return next year as such. What it should do is help nuance the conversation around him and heighten the perception of his strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.

When Brown goes dormant for stretches, scathing critiques sometimes arise about Boston’s offensive ineptitude and hierarchy. But Brown is not equipped to commandeer possessions like Tatum (better scorer and facilitator) or Smart (better facilitator) and can have his flame darkened by the right approach.

Like the majority of NBA players, including a slew of fellow All-Stars, he is maximized when schemed touches in his spots because he is a tremendous and malleable off-ball scorer who drills threes, attacks closeouts, explodes off of cuts and punishes mismatches. Scaling up into a prominent on-ball role requiring advantage creation, passing variety and anticipatory decision-making, however, has proven dicey. In recognizing that reality, Miami’s game-plan and personnel answered questions derived from those dormant stretches.

Following last season’s disappointing conclusion, the Celtics entered the Eastern Conference Finals hoping to continue a campaign of redemption culminating in a title. Two weeks later, they’ve bowed out of the playoffs once again short of a championship. Holes in Brown’s skill set and the manner in which the Heat highlighted them are among the most pressing causes why.