BOSTON - A year ago, Jaylen Brown barely registered as a participant in Boston's conference final appearance against the Cavaliers. He averaged 9.0 points and 3.0 rebounds, scoring 29 of his 45 total points in the first two games before fading into a non-factor, a minus-34 in a series the Celtics lost in five games by an average of 20.6 points.
Just a game into this year's rematch of the teams, Brown's production - 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting - gives a glimpse into just how far his team has come in a year, despite a rash of injuries (most notably to leading scorer Kyrie Irving) that would have sunk just about any other team in the league.
Not only did the Celtics win, running their playoff winning streak at TD Garden to eight games, but they commanded the game from the outset, seizing control with a 25-2 first-quarter run and going on to win, 108-83. Boston held Cavs star LeBron James to just 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting, and blitzed the Cleveland defense with 51.2 percent shooting.
At this point, every win the Celtics get is the most important win any player on this team has gotten - no one in green has played in the NBA Finals. Brown, who is terminally low-key and rarely says anything out of line to the media, at least acknowledged the win's magnitude.
"Very important," he said. "Like, last year, you look at, they won two games here at home when we were the one seed. We're the two seed this year, and we got a big win on our home floor. The shift in mindset from last year to this year has been great. I'm just happy to be part of it."
You'd be hard-pressed to identify Brown as the 21-year-old second-year player who was such a non-factor on this stage a year ago. On Sunday, he played like an established NBA star, an evolution that began in the regular season (he averaged 14.5 points with a 54.0 effective field-goal percentage, up from 6.6 points and 50.8 percent effective shooting last year), but has been accelerated in the playoffs as spring has worn on.
Coming into the conference finals, he was averaging 16.9 points, despite missing a game and being on a minutes restriction with a hamstring injury. He had shot 48.7 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from the 3-point line. By the time he was done on Sunday, he had raised his playoff scoring average to 17.5 per game.
One sequence summed up the kind of afternoon it was for Brown. At 3:26 of the second quarter, Cavaliers forward Kevin Love had the ball in the paint and attacked the rim. Brown leapt and smacked away Love's attempt, turning to say something to Love as he did. Boston's Marcus Morris (who was outstanding with 21 points and 10 rebounds) saved the ball from going out of bounds, tossing it to Brown. He pushed the ball up the floor, eventually getting it back on a re-post of Kyle Korver.
He sized up Korver and let fly a 15-foot jumper. Down it went, pushing the Boston lead to 24 points. (Game 2 adjustment note for Cavs coach Tyronn Lue: Maybe less Korver on Brown.)
Brown gets it done on both ends! pic.twitter.com/gxOfXATUwm- Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 13, 2018
Brown may have made a statement to Love. But he would not declare that the Celtics had made any kind of meaningful statement to the Cavs with the way they played in the opener.
"I wouldn't say that," Brown said. "We were just playing basketball. We're looking forward to Game 2. We stayed together. We were the more connected team. If we continue to stay together, we'll be fine."
All around, this game was a bit of a catharsis for the four Celtics who were around for last year's Cavaliers conference finals drubbing. Terry Rozier was relatively quiet, but still tallied eight points, six rebounds and eight assists (with just one turnover). Marcus Smart had nine points and six assists.
The biggest vengeance game came from forward Al Horford, who had been 1-16 in his career against James and the Cavs in the postseason. Horford shot 8-for-10 from the field in Game 1 and finished with 20 points and six assists.
But this night was led by Brown. Before the game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens joked about Brown's injured hamstring and the way he had to hold back on minutes for him during the conference semifinals.
"I was told he couldn't play 48 (minutes) today, so I'll make sure I try to heed that advice," Stevens said.
He might have liked to play Brown for all 48 minutes if he'd been needed. Brown and Boston got off to a lightning fast start in this one.
"It's the Eastern Conference finals," Brown said. "What have we got to wait for?"
Indeed, Brown was aggressive from the outset. He scored the first points of the game on a driving finger roll, and had 13 points at the end of the opening quarter. Overall, his Game 1 shot chart was an analytics dreamscape: 10 shots in the paint, five from the 3-point line, and just the one midrange shot made in front of Korver.
Jaylen gets things started! pic.twitter.com/QkgZbemEgp- Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 13, 2018
There's a long way to go in this series, of course, and keeping James down for more than one game has proven impossible in these playoffs. Across the board, though, this was a big step for a young Celtics team, and for Brown in particular. Just last year, he was a low-level cog on an outmatched group trying to beat the Cavaliers, a goal desperately out of reach.
Now, he is leading the way in a series that has, so far, begun with so much more promise, and with a team that has so much more potential than most imagined, even just a month ago when Boston was scrapping through a seven-game series against Milwaukee.
Just like that, the Celtics are closer than any other team to the Finals - for a day, at least.
"We've got three more wins that we need to get," Brown said. "That was a great start. Get ready for Game 2."