ATLANTA — Jaylen Brown dumped his mask almost two months to the day he sported it while dueling with Jayson Tatum in Salt Lake City. The All Star Game marked his first game back from a facial fracture after colliding with Tatum against Philadelphia. His effort without it on Sunday positioned the Celtics one win from meeting the Sixers in round two on Saturday.
While Brown shocked teammates by removing it after 1-for-6 start on Sunday, the more burdening device spanned between his index and middle finger. He removed the protection on his finger and finished 11-for-15.
“I needed a different look,” Brown said. “I felt like, to start the game, I didn’t like the looks I got, so I needed something to switch up a little bit. As soon as I took it off, things started to turn around a little bit. Rob set a good screen in the first half, I got an open look from three, they went under, then I got a transition bucket and that kind of helped me get going … I started getting comfortable with (the mask) … I had to wear it as the cartilage started healing, it still hasn’t fully grown back in, I started to get more comfortable with it. Today, I needed something different … I needed to change my shoes, wipe my hands off, take the mask off, whatever.”
Brown scored 31 points on 11-for-22 and managed the Celtics’ fourth-quarter lead as Trae Young and Dejounte Murray tried to rally the Hawks and tie the series heading back to Boston. The Celtics won, 129-121, as Atlanta likely made its strongest comeback attempt and now faces league scrutiny for actions by Murray in the closing moments of the loss. Marcus Smart returned from a scary fall in Game 3 and scored 19 points, while Robert Williams III solved the team’s rebounding issue, perhaps the last remaining mismatch that favored the Hawks in a now 3-1 series.
The Celtics won all the battles along the margins first quarter. Tatum drew two free throws on his first drive against De’Andre Hunter. Boston built a 12-rebound advantage in the first half, Smart and Tatum sending Derrick White out for one of numerous breakout baskets. Boston limited its first quarter turnovers and stopped seven straight Hawks possessions on a 10-0 run that pushed the Celtics close to a double-digit lead.
Joe Mazzulla playedWilliams III more often, as promised pre-game, and the big man garnered his career-high for the playoffs with 12 rebounds in 15 first-half minutes after only appearing for 19 in the Game 3 loss. Malcolm Brogdon paced that bench unit ahead by 10 points into the second quarter, while Brown fell to 1-for-6 through a flurry of misses around the rim. When Brown removed his face mask, he immediately hit a three, receiving a hard high five from Williams III on his now exposed injured right hand. He scored a transition layup, then Mazzulla adjusted, turning back toward double-big and seeing Williams III draw free throws and catch a lob from Al Horford.
“(Mazzulla’s) been challenging all of us to bring it with the physicality,” Williams III said. “He’s letting me know that’s why they pay me … keep doing that, that’s when I’m at my best. He has an even level of building you up and tearing you down at the same time. He encourages me and he challenges me … you love those moments, the high energy moments.”
Tatum grew fired up as the game progressed too, blocking Clint Capela help side for the first of his three rejections. Brown tipped the ball off Murray guarding him in the half court plays later. Smart, who played after suffering a back contusion late in Game 3, turned his ire toward Brown for a miscommunication, screaming at his teammate and waving his hands along the sideline before patting him on the back after the ensuing in-bounds toss over Young forced a foul on the Hawks guard pushing him toward half court. Brown emphasized the game’s heightened intensity, saying it evolved past scheme toward will as Atlanta fought for its season.
Tatum blocked Murray on the next play, and Smart sent out Brown for a transition slam. Brown returned the favor, feeding Smart for a three in the right wing and initially drawing a foul on Capela before a review overturned the chance for an extra point. Smart acknowledged Brown in the back court, and the bigger Celtics held Atlanta to 9-for-24 (38%) shooting in the second quarter, racing ahead 65-53.
“After the timeout, we were looking for Jaylen, we couldn’t find him, because he didn’t have his mask on,” Smart told CLNS Media. “Just talking about our matchups, communicating, that’s a big thing for us is to be able to communicate. He felt like I missed a coverage, or something of that sort, and we just talked it out. I asked him what he seen, and he told me, and vice versa, he asked what he could do. That’s the growth, the maturity that we both have had. We’ve been playing with each other for so long. That speaks volumes of who we are as a team.”
Smart scored tough baskets around halftime through Capela and Hunter, throwing down an emphatic dunk to close a third quarter where the Celtics slipped but never trailed. His left-side finish in traffic answered a Young lob and pair of finishes in the lane that pulled Atlanta within 72-67. Tatum drove to the rim on the next possession and Young pulled him down by the right arm, enraging Tatum, who shot back up and darted toward an official in one of several tense moments between players and officials. Murray tried to calm Tatum with a pat.
The review led to a flagrant one penalty on Young, but Tatum’s struggles continued from three on his way to a 1-for-8 start while Boston’s big men grappled with tighter officiating on their screening. Brown’s downhill drives powered the offense for the rest of the frame, finishing through Onyeka Okongwu for a three-point play to improve to 6-for-8 since ditching the mask. When Williams III checked out with five fouls to start the fourth quarter and Young scored five straight points to pull Atlanta within 100-96, the Celtics looked to Brown.
“I saw his face,” Mazzulla said. “Then after that, I saw his poise, and I thought he did a great job making plays at the rim, operating in space, playing off two feet, making the right play. To me, he showed tremendous poise, especially in the offensive end. He had the ball in his hands, making plays for himself and others … he attacked angles and didn’t settle, and every time he got in the paint, he made the right play. I’m really proud of him.”
Brogdon entered and matched him up along Okongwu in transition, noting the Hawks big man’s foul trouble and hesitancy to physically guard Brown. Brown, whose face captured most of the attention post-game, clearly handled the ball better on plays like those down the stretch after also removing the protective device on his hand.
Brown, who struggled to dribble with his right hand for much of the series, needed to decide between lessening the blow while catching passes and getting a feel for the ball, and chose the latter.
“It was distorting my feel on the ball,” Brown told CLNS Media. “I haven’t really gotten a lot of clean pickups and things I need to get into my jump shot or to get to my spots. The padding was distorting that comfort level, but it was also taking away some of the pain once you get hit with the ball or whatever. You’ve gotta choose. I’d rather have the feel, feel a little bit more comfortable with the ball in my hands and eat the pain, rather than the pain is aided and the ball don’t feel as comfortable. As each day goes by, it gets better and better.”
Tatum emerged early in the frame with a three from Brogdon, but missed three difficult jump shots in a row as the Hawks pressured him and defended late into the shot clock. Brown managed the lead by driving and finding Williams III, back in the game, with a pair of dump-offs for finishes that withheld Murray and Young’s shots in the lane from pulling the Hawks back within one possession. Ahead by seven, Brown saved a long outlet pass from Tatum after stopping Murray the three-point line and set Tatum up for free throws on the other end.
Brown’s steal and an errant dribble by Smart off Murray’s leg forced Tatum to recover the ball in the back court and bury a long three to escape Atlanta. Brown, who hit a three after Williams III saved the ensuing possession and dunked for the exclamation point, watched blood drip down his right arm in the aftermath, while Murray’s collision with official Gediminas Petraitis will draw NBA scrutiny and a possible suspension, ESPN reported.
“Maybe it was all in my head,” Brown said. “I just needed something different. When I took (the mask) off, it just gave me the edge I needed. There were no Future references that I heard, but I’ll take the win. It didn’t matter if I scored 25 or I scored two, as long as I just help my team to be in a position to win, that’s what I’m trying to focus on, but I definitely need to continue to be aggressive. I feel like our team is different when I got the ball and I’m being aggressive.”