Less than four minutes into Game 5, Jaylen Brown caught a swing pass on the arc from Al Horford, set his feet and a sank the first of 16 3-pointers made by the Celtics in a 110-97 chest-pounding rout that cast the first real doubt on whether “everything’s gonna be alright” for Jimmy Butler’s Heat.
The 3-pointer was the beginning of a blitz from behind the arc, and if Celtics fans are lucky, the end of an ugly streak for Brown.
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The Second Team All-NBA player started the postseason red hot against the Hawks, averaging 26.7 points per game and tallying three consecutive 30-plus performances. He did it all in a mask, protecting his fractured face, with a hand laceration that split open during games and with questions about his future in Boston hanging over him.
But before Thursday, his game had cooled considerably while stacked against Miami’s collapsing zone defense. He started the series with six turnovers in a loss at home. He shot 0-for-7 from behind the arc in Boston’s embarrassing Game 3 in Miami.
What happened? Did he hurt his elbow early in the series? Had he lost his legs after a physical start to the postseason? Is he preoccupied with whether or not Boston will make him the highest-paid player in the league next year? Does he just miss Ime Udoka on the sidelines?
Whatever his deal was, he mostly figured it out before Thursday. Sure, there was still an airball 3-pointer to start, a lost handle in the paint and a forced 2-on-3 break gobbled up by the Heat, which turned into a Butler bucket.
But Brown was much closer to the version seen back in April, and that’s critical to whether or not the Celtics can make a truly historic comeback this series.
Because as much as the masses like to parrot, “make-miss league, make-miss league,” physicality and defense is integral to the war of attrition the Celtics wage against their opponents in victory. It’s not just about chucking shots until something falls.
“Water finds its level, that’s true, but you’ve also got to play the game the right way,” he said after his 21-point performance.
Brown described the hyperactive defense he spearheaded next to Marcus Smart — resulting in 8 steals between the two guards.
“You can’t blink, because they’ll find a shooter,” Brown said. “You’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to be sound. You’ve got to chase those guys because, all night, they’re going to be running. You’ve got to bring your track shoes.”
It’s that style of defense this team has to lean back on when that wall they love pressing their backs against starts to wobble. They feed off the first-half three that have Brown jawing back at the sideline as he walks up the court, off the dunks and the floating jumpers — but that’s all sugar and starch compared to the protein in their defensive game.
“Obviously, we didn’t imagine being in this position, being down 3-0. But when adversity hits, that’s when you get to see what a team’s made of,” Brown said.
The Celtics have proven they’re more substantial than the team who collapsed in Game 3. Game 6 will test whether they’re the most resilient team in franchise history.