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Celtics Answer Jaylen Brown’s Call and Jayson Tatum Emerges in Game 3 Win

CLEVELAND — Jaylen Brown wore the ESPN mic on the right night. With a crushing Game 2 loss in the rear view, Jayson Tatum’s playoff struggles mounting and a raucous Cleveland environment awaiting them, Brown spoke to teammates throughout Game 3. Celtics veterans agreed communication had to improve. Brown led the way.

“Tell them to stop playing with you,” Brown said to Tatum out of a timeout. “I’m Big Deuce. I’m Big Deuce. Come on.”

It fit — given Brown stepping into the lead scoring role since extra attention and shooting woes knocked Tatum out of that role to begin the postseason. Brown entered Saturday averaging 23.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and shooting 52.8% from the field. Determined to spark Boston’s defense and get Tatum going, Brown mentioned at shootaround that both would happen in tandem. Only by piling up stops, running and creating extra chances would Tatum and the team’s outlook improve after an unacceptable Game 2. They all answered there, winning 106-93.

For Tatum, shooting 11-for-25, he didn’t totally shake his shooting slump, but attacked more decisively and turned nine free throws and 9-for-17 shooting inside the arc into a 33-point performance. Brown kept talking,  sharing halftime encouragement, and backed it up with his play, adding 28 points on 13-for-17 shooting.

“I think J.B. just told us it wasn’t over,” Jrue Holiday said, remembering when Boston led 57-48 at half. “We’ve been here before this year where we’re up 20 in the fourth quarter and they came back and won. So I think we know what kind of firepower they have, what type of team they are, and really great scorers, but we felt like coming in and trying to punch them in the mouth right off the bat.”

Two factors that kept the Cavaliers competitive through the Boston games swung the Celtics’ way early when a pair of Tatum pull-up threes fell and Isaac Okoro watched a pair of early Cavs passes send him out of bounds. Many of the Cavaliers’ early turnovers were unforced though, forcing Boston to execute in the half court.

They did, Holiday getting into the pocket and finding some post up and passing opportunities, combining with White to set Tatum up for a layup. Boston played with greater pace in both half and their limited full court sets. Tatum started 5-for-9 in the first while Holiday added two shots in the lane and a three. 

“I knew Donovan was gonna be aggressive on one side of the ball,” Holiday said. “There were a lot of times where I might defer or do something, I thought attacking him might get him more exhausted by the third or the fourth quarter … (Brown was) telling us to be aggressive, telling me to be aggressive, ‘if you get aggressive, then I’ll switch onto Donovan,’ just being a leader in that way.”

Donovan Mitchell scored 23 points in the first half anyway, finishing with 33, and helped pace the Cavs within four through the first quarter behind drop-off passes, pick-and-rolls and the occasional creative handoff set. They played inconsistently on offense though, lapsing into isolation sets while the second unit added little against Boston’s renewed rffort. A bailout play where Dean Wade saved a bad pass at mid court, then swung a pass to Max Strus for a corner three before the shot clock buzzer went off, along with Wade’s own three on his first attempt in two months kept Cleveland competitive before Tatum separated the Celtics into the second. 

Mitchell’s back-to-back threes pulled the Cavs within three midway through the second, but Kornet freed Holiday completely for a pull-up three that sparked a 5-0 push to go up by nine on Brown transition runs. Tatum defended that lead with three scoring plays attacking the basket to close the half, and unloaded on Cleveland to begin the third.

The Celtics went on a 14-0 run and mostly maintained their urgency from that point on. Tatum drove for another three-point play inside. Brown swung a diagonal pass to get White a three. Brown slipped and finished at the basket playing off White. Boston led by 17 after two minutes. Mobley limped off the court with an injury. The Cavaliers looked done.

“(Brown was) expressing his feelings and pouring out his knowledge on the game,” Holiday said. “Talking to us defensively, especially down the stretch, ‘no threes, rebound the ball,’ he’s sitting there yelling at us, just being the leader that he is.”

JB Bickerstaff leaned into small ball and stumbled into a 15-4 run playing through Mitchell’s penetration and better spacing. The Celtics missed five straight shots and a pair of free throws. A Wade cutting finish cut nine points off the Celtics’ 23-point advantage, but Tatum pulled Boston out of it again. To close the third 13-12, he drew a pair of free throws, tossed a lob to Kornet, dunked and hit a mid-ranger. 

“He’s a really great player that gets taken advantage of, because he’s been really good for a long time,” Mazzulla said. “Under-appreciated, and I thought he played a great game on both sides of the floor.”

The Cavs chipped that 15-point lead down to nine following Mobley’s return, hitting him for a pair of dunks that forced a Celtics timeout 90 seconds into the fourth. Brown and Tatum went to the rim right out of timeout, and after LeVert traded scoring plays with them, Pritchard pulled up for a three that’d make a Cleveland comeback difficult.

He pumped his fist toward the bench, then turned his head and scrambled back on defense. The Celtics still had to contend with Mitchell, who soon finished an and-one through Brown’s defense. Mobley dunked on White the play prior, who answered with a three and cutting layup off good ball movement. But they had run out of time and Boston took a 2-1 series lead on the road.

“We need everybody to be on the same page and everybody to come out with the right effort,” Brown said. “That’s 85% of the battle right there. We come out, we play hard, we’re on the same page and the rest will take care of itself. We got enough talent in the locker room to beat teams, but if we’re not on the same page and we’re not playing hard, that’s when we get ourselves in trouble. Making sure before the game, in film and shootaround, talking to everybody, touching everybody, letting everybody know, hey, we’re not here to play around. We didn’t come to Cleveland for the weather, so let’s go.”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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