Jaylen Brown summed it up simply enough when he said the Celtics had to be smarter – smarter with their shot selection, smarter with their pace, smarter with the multitude of things they did wrong on offense in Game 1.
And no one took it more to heart than Brown on Tuesday night in Game 2. The star wing scored 25 of his 30 points on 9-for-10 first half shooting and staked the Celtics the rest of the night on their way to a series-tying 109-86 win over Milwaukee in their Eastern Conference semifinals series at TD Garden.
“JB was locked in, locked in from last game, locked in from shoot around,” Jayson Tatum said of his teammate. “If I was a betting man, I would have bet that JB was gonna have a great game. And he set the tone, and that was big for us. Just how aggressive he was coming out making the right plays for himself and for others. He kind of got us going tonight.”
From an ongoing hamstring issue, to his observance of the just-completed month of Ramadan, to a rough 12-point, 4-for-13, seven-turnover performance in Game 1, Brown carried a lot into Tuesday night’s game.
“Everything, not just this last month but this whole entire year, the season we just had, injuries early on in the year, how we started off as a team, then we kind of got things going, and we continued to persevere,” said Brown. “We had a great series against Brooklyn and then came in in the first game and got punched in the mouth. It all woke us up. All the adversity, all the negativity, everything we had to overcome, you look at it and you channel it into these moments, and you don’t let your team lose. You need every bit of that each and every game. You want to continue to channel that adversity, channel the things you;ve had to overcome all year into that game, because it’s just one.”
And it started with a simple shift to driving, kicking and hitting some early mid-range shots to open up the offense. Brook Lopez, whose rim protection stymied the Celtics on Sunday, didn’t have quite the same level of success on Tuesday.
“Offensively I think it was us getting downhill and attacking a little bit more,” said Ime Udoka. “The point is they have good rim protectors and they protect the paint, but it’s not Wilt Chamberlain out there. There’s guys we can get downhill and attack and we’ve got guys that can finish. So, still missed a few dump-offs to Rob (Williams) tonight, a few dump-offs to Al as well. But obviously much better getting downhill and attacking Lopez tonight.”
Though forced to play without the ailing Marcus Smart (right thigh contusion), the Celtics jumped out early and thanks to a more balanced attack, never trailed. Jayson Tatum picked up the scoring in a rougher, uneven second half on the way to 29 points. Grant Williams found open shots all night on the way to a playoff career high 21-point performance that included 6-for-10 3-point shooting.
Nor did their improved offense come at the expense of the other end of the floor. This time Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored 18 of Milwaukee’s 26 third quarter points, needed 27 shots to score 28 points. The two-time MVP is now 20-for-52 (38.5%) over two games, and thus far hindered by the Celtics’ physical coverage.
Grant Williams was once again a major part of the effort against Antetokounmpo and continued, in the best tradition of Semi Ojeleye, to hold up his part of the wall against the Bucks star.
Brown finished 11-for-18 from the floor, including 6-for-10 from 3-point range – a far cry from his Game 1 performance. He later insisted that his balky right hamstring wasn’t the issue. Though he occasionally grabbed the hamstring Tuesday night, the injury wasn’t evident in his performance.
“It may tighten up during games. He’s played heavy minutes. Really at the end of the game, we really wanted to get him out,” said Udoka. “He sat out 2:45 of the third quarter and then we brought him back in to start the quarter and he ran that nine-minute stretch. Being that we were up in the 16-18 range, we wanted to get him out. We had a lot of stoppages so we could run him a little longer due to the timeouts and due to the reviews. More so than anything, it was just getting him out because he ran a heavy amount in the second half.”
The Celtics raced to a 26-point lead early in the third quarter, but Antetokounmpo cut the Celtics lead to 12 points with two free throws with 4:30 left after a slowdown bu the hosts. But Tatum circled out to the corner and buried his fourth 3-pointer of the night – a shot clock buzzer beater – for a 97-82 lead.
The Bucks continued to threaten, cutting the margin to 13 on two Jrue Holiday free throws. But Brown put back a Payton Pritchard downtown miss for a 99-84 lead with 3:25 left. Antetokounmpo answered with his 28th point of the night, Tatum hit two free throws, and came back off an Antetokounmpo turnover with a corner three for a 104-86 edge.
Grant Williams buried his sixth 3-pointer to put it out of reach with 1:58 left.
Ball movement, much to Williams’ delight, was once again part of the mix. This time the Celtics connected 28 assists to 38 baskets.
“It was fun. It was actually hilarious because I think in one possession, JB ball faked to me twice in the corner,” said Williams. “Ball faked me, took a dribble, ball faked me again, threw it to JT and JT threw it to Al and laid it up. But I was sitting there, I was like, ‘Huh, I’m kinda open.’ But I was like, ‘You know what We got a layup, so I’m gonna get back on defense.’ So it was kind of cool. It was so exciting being on the floor with that because each and every one of us was out there trusting one another, having fun and that’s how you know it’s a team where you’ve got success.”