2024 NBA Finals: Jaylen Brown's defensive brilliance helps curtail Mavericks' formidable 3rd-quarter rally

BOSTON — Derrick Jones Jr. was ready to lift off Thursday night and switch all of TD Garden into airplane mode. He planted the right toe of his highlighter orange sneaker on the charge circle, then caught Luka Dončić’s lob with two hands. These have been the dimes Dončić tossed above the Western Conference playoff bracket that Dallas conquered to reach these NBA Finals. Here was another poster as part of another herculean Mavericks comeback. Until Jaylen Brown said otherwise.

The Celtics’ All-Star forward had been lurking along the baseline, shading his coverage toward Maxi Kleber, who was parked in the left corner. “I was the low guy. I was on some of those bigs. You don't want to give up lobs,” Brown said. “That's one thing that we made an emphasis on.” Dončić has feasted on finding Jones, Daniel Gafford, Dereck Lively II and whoever else has leaped toward the rim this postseason. Brown and Kristaps Porziņģis, in a mighty return from his calf injury, plus Al Horford and Derrick White, with his routine rim protection for just a 6-foot-5 guard, combined to shield the basket from any aerial Mavericks attack during Boston’s 107-89 Game 1 victory. The lob to Jones that Brown denied was Dallas’ only such attempt of the evening, and the Celtics rejected as many shots (nine) as assists Dallas tallied.

Brown not only rejected Dallas’ high-flying wing, but he recovered to block Jones a second time with 2:28 remaining in the third quarter. “I was able to cat-and-mouse a little bit,” Brown said afterward.

A minute later, when Kyrie Irving skirted around Jrue Holiday, Brown refused to allow the Mavericks’ silky scorer a clean chance to break out of a shooting funk in front of his former home crowd. The fans booed on every dance of Irving’s dribble, and he missed all five of his triples and finished just 6-of-19 from the floor, one miss thanks to Brown’s acrobatic swat after leaving his assignment — another Mavericks big man in Gafford. “He can just do everything on the basketball court and he has, like, no weaknesses on both sides,” White said.

Indeed, Brown also paced Boston in scoring, his 22 points included a poster dunk and hard drives through the paint along with two 3-pointers. Brown added three steals, too, one where he picked Dončić’s pocket in the backcourt, the two young phenoms alone on an island before a sea of green and white, and Brown stole a runway for another two-handed jam. “JB's unreal on the perimeter,” said White. Brown’s three blocks in the third quarter were pivotal in helping Boston build back a 20-point advantage after the Mavericks trimmed what was a 29-point difference down just eight points with 4:28 to play in the stanza.

“What you saw tonight is kind of the challenge he took for himself coming into the year,” Mazzulla said.

Brown wants the other team’s toughest matchup, and there he was opening the game on Dončić. Brown has said of all the shade he’s endured — from cracks about his handle stemming from Boston’s 2022 NBA Finals loss to Golden State, to Stephen A. Smith’s recent controversial claims about Brown that went viral — it was his absence from any All-Defensive teams that has stung him the most. It was a preseason goal of his, now 27 years old and playing his seventh Finals game Thursday, the 120th postseason game of his eight-season career.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 06: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics dunks the ball against Daniel Gafford #21 of the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter in Game One of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 06, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Jaylen Brown of the Celtics dunks over Daniel Gafford of the Mavericks during the second quarter in Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 6, 2024, in Boston. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“I thought this year I’ve taken a level and I’ve increased it,” Brown said after Boston’s series victory over Indiana in the conference finals. Another critical block, Celtics fans will happily recall, from Brown in the fourth quarter of Game 4 helped Boston seal a sweep of the Pacers. “I took the matchup, I picked up guys full court. I chased guys off screens, I battled with bigs,” Brown said. He would also say proudly, with the Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP trophy sitting at his side: “I think I’m one of the best two-way wings, guards, whatever you want to say, in this game.”

And he has only kept proving that statement to be an absolute reality.

A block, with the game in the balance, just boasts a greater weight, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s in the exact definition of the sequence, some man rising to the occasion and delivering the stopping force to a powerful object. And when the ball crashes back to the hardwood, it can start a breakaway down the other end. With these Celtics that could very well become a back-breaking 3-pointer. They drilled 16 in Game 1, firing 15 more attempts from beyond the arc than Dallas. Even when Boston’s offense sputtered to open the second half — Dončić scored 10 quickly, and the Mavericks clawed back to 72-64 — the Celtics responded as they did during three of their four games against the Pacers.

“Usually when you give up a run and your offense gets a little stagnant, your defense goes with it. And tonight our defense kept us in it,” Mazzulla said. “And that’s really important to have that defensive mindset. And some of those plays Jaylen made were really important.”

A 14-2 run, featuring Brown’s two-way brilliance, capped the third quarter and quelled any momentum for the Mavericks. Sandwiching his block on Irving, Brown found Al Horford for one of his two 3-pointers on the night, and then Brown knocked in a long ball of his own. “When they cut it to eight, that's when the game started,” he said. “I liked how our team responded. We stayed composed.” Both Brown and White said the Celtics took a collective breath when they called timeout at the 4:28 mark of the third and their lead sliced to single digits. And yet no player or coach from Boston exited the arena looking like they’d exhaled. Brown walked back to the locker room after the victory and dished out high-fives while proclaiming, “Don’t get cute, fellas. It’s just one win.”

He sported a black leather matching set when he took the postgame dais. He was far from celebratory, almost muted, his voice certainly dull and unsatisfied. It was just two years ago his Celtics were fielding questions in this building after taking a 2-1 series lead over the Warriors.

Boston personnel understand there are three long, grueling wins still standing in the way of the 18th banner this franchise has coveted since 2008. “Luka still had 30 and 10, so I got to do a better job,” Brown said. The Mavericks, remember, dropped Game 1 against the Clippers and Thunder in their first two playoff matchups and went on to win both without requiring a seventh game. Dallas will have moves to make after watching tape through Friday and Saturday, before Sunday’s Game 2.

“It's a long series,” Brown said. “I expect them to come out with tremendous force and maybe try to hit us in the mouth.”