BOSTON — He is the other J. The All-Star, but not the MVP candidate. The scorer but not the scorer. When high profile trade chatter has come up (Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard) it’s been Jaylen Brown, not Jayson Tatum lumped into it.
Brown is still a Celtic—the second-longest tenured Celtic, in fact—and, boy, was Boston glad to have him on Tuesday. Game 2, the Celtics’ season on the line, their best defender, Marcus Smart, on the bench and Brown went off, racking up 25 first-half points (30 overall), dished out six assists and collected five rebounds. He made 11 of his 18 shots, six of his 10 threes and held Celtics-killer Jrue Holiday to 19 points on 7-of-20 in Boston’s 109–86 win.
“JB was locked in,” said Tatum. “He set the tone and that was big for us.”
There’s no sugar coating it: Boston was punked in Game 1. Four games against the finesse Nets softened the Celtics, who wilted against Milwaukee’s physicality. For two days Boston stewed, suffering through film sessions that showed Milwaukee’s front line muscling the Celtics in the paint, Holiday gluing himself to Tatum and Brown and a Bucks defense designed to force contested threes goading Boston into shooting 50 of them.
“We have been a bigger, [more physical team] all year,” said Ime Udoka. “I didn’t love how we didn’t react to them being physical. We adjusted well, we learned some things from Game 1 … we haven’t been outmuscled like that all year. I think our guys took that to heart. I knew we would come out with the right effort to tonight.”
Said Brown, “How you respond is everything in this league. We knew we had to come out and play like our season was on the line.”
Did they ever. After getting punched in the mouth in Game 1, Boston came out swinging. It was 18–3 midway through the first quarter. It was 65–40 at the half. The Celtics still fired up a lot of threes (43) but made 46.5% of them, with Grant Williams connecting on six off the bench. They took the midrange shot when it was offered. “We welcome those shots,” said Udoka. They attacked the paint. Udoka said Boston showed too much respect for Milwaukee’s rim protectors in Game 1. “We felt like we let them off the hook,” Udoka said. After making just 10 two-point shots on Sunday, the Celtics connected on 18 in Game 2. “It’s not Wilt Chamberlain out there,” Udoka said. “We can go downhill and attack.”
Defensively, the Celtics were brilliant. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the only Bucks player to score more than 20 points—and he needed 27 shots to get his 28. Antetokounmpo, who collected a triple-double in Game 1, was held to 2-of-12 shooting in the first half. The combination of Williams and Al Horford forced Giannis into tough, contested turnaround jumpers and long three-point shots.
“You just hunker down and trust the work you've done,” said Williams. “And do your best to contain one of the best players in the world."
Even when the Bucks got going, Boston answered. It was a determined Antetokounmpo who came out of the locker room to start the third quarter. He made eight of his 11 shots in the third. But while Milwaukee chipped away at the lead, Boston refused to let them erase it. Tatum got going. He scored 29 points, 19 in the final two quarters. He made 10 of his 20 shots, five of his 10 threes and handed out eight assists.
“We were pissed off in how we played last game,” Tatum said. “We knew we had to player better, simple as that.”
Boston won, salvaged a split of the first two games, but this feels like anyone’s series. The health of Smart looms large. Although a source familiar with Marcus Smart’s right quad contusion told SI the injury was causing Smart pain in his right knee, Udoka expressed optimism that Smart, officially sidelined with a right quad contusion that, according to a source familiar with Smart's injury, was causing pain in his right knee, could play in Game 3 on Saturday. And Boston will need him. Antetokounmpo, after two straight poor shooting performances, will likely play better when the series shifts to Milwaukee. And the Bucks defense, gashed in the first half, held Boston to 18 points in the third quarter and just 44 points in the second half.
The Celtics got a critical win.
The Bucks head back to Milwaukee with home court advantage.
The battle between two Eastern Conference heavyweights has just begun.
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