May 25, 2024

Jaylen Brown’s pep talk fuels Celtics in Game 3: ‘We’re not here to play around’

CLEVELAND — Jaylen Brown grabbed some of his teammates by the shoulder during pregame layup lines Saturday night. In a tied series, he recognized the Boston Celtics didn’t have room for another dud. Make or miss in Game 3, Brown told Derrick White, the Celtics needed to lock up.

Brown didn’t just deliver a motivational message to White. Ticked off about how the Celtics defended during a Game 2 loss, Brown aimed to rev up his teammates. He said he wanted to speak life into his team.

“He just went around to everybody,” White told The Athletic. “Just encouraging us and challenging us.”

While sitting at his locker after the Celtics used a 106-93 road win to take a 2-1 series lead, Al Horford said Brown understood the task ahead. The Boston players talked among themselves about the crowd they would encounter in Cleveland and the energy they would need to overcome it. Brown, vocal about how his team couldn’t accept another poor defensive effort, prepared himself to meet the moment. In various conversations, he steeled his teammates to do the same.

“He just kept reminding us,” Horford said. “He did a great job setting the tone.”

Brown scored 28 points on 13-for-17 shooting. When the Cavaliers cut a 23-point deficit to nine points early in the fourth quarter, he made all four of his shots over the final 9:10 to ensure they never pulled any closer. After he implored his teammates to pick up the defensive intensity, his consistent production on both ends helped them overcome Donovan Mitchell’s huge first half and the tense moments that followed Cleveland’s fourth-quarter charge. Through all the ups and downs of the game, the Celtics showed the resiliency and focus they will need to survive in the playoffs, just like Brown demanded of them.

“I think it was just a challenge,” White said. “Obviously myself, Jrue (Holiday), JB, JT (Jayson Tatum), we’ve gotta be able to do it on both ends. That’s what we pride ourselves on. On playing like that. Just that little challenge, it makes you want to compete a little bit more.”

Though still early in a second-round series with the Cavaliers, the Celtics seemed to feel the pressure to preserve their great season. To do so, they believed they needed to live up to their usual standard again, which they did not do in Game 2. The quest started well before Game 3 started. At shootaround, Brown and Jrue Holiday made it clear the Celtics would focus on bringing a sharper edge to Game 3. They believed their team lacked the appropriate intensity during a Game 2 loss at TD Garden. Especially for a postseason game, Brown and Holiday thought the Celtics didn’t compete with enough force in that game.

“It’s playoffs,” Brown said. “We’ve got to bring the fight. It wasn’t enough energy, wasn’t enough effort.”

“We can’t have that,” said Holiday.

The Celtics didn’t lack fire in Game 3. Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell rode a first-half heater with six 3-pointers before the end of the second quarter, but Boston still only gave up 48 points on 38.6-percent shooting to take a 57-48 lead into the half. During halftime, Holiday said Brown told the Celtics the game wasn’t over yet. They should have known that from experience. In early March, Boston held a 22-point fourth-quarter lead in Cleveland before cratering over the final nine minutes.

On Saturday, it took 1:47 for the Celtics to score the first eight points of the third quarter. An open Brown layup from White pushed the Boston advantage to 65-48 and convinced the Cavaliers to take a timeout. Even after the timeout, the Celtics continued to surge. They drilled a pair of 3-pointers shortly afterward to extend their run to 14-0 and their lead to 71-48. Even with Mitchell sinking off-the-dribble jumpers as if they were layups, the Celtics were able to hold down the Cleveland offense.

“Donovan was tough,” Brown said. “I feel like he had an exceptional first half and made some tough baskets off the dribble. Some of that stuff can be discouraging because he’s a great player. But we just stayed with it over the course. We were able to keep everybody else out of it and find a way to win.”

As much as anyone, Brown seems to value the opportunity the Celtics hold this season. Though his urgency hit a new level after the Game 2 defeat, it began bubbling up before the season began. The feeling of a crushing Eastern Conference Finals loss to Miami last season, and his part in it, drove him to work harder than ever over the summer. At a press conference for the signing of his big contract extension in July, when he could have been most relaxed, he used the opportunity to state the Celtics needed to hang their hats on the defensive end of the court. Months before training camp, he was already busy establishing an attitude for his team.

“He’s been doing it all year,” White said. “Just taking on the challenge. And then obviously, how he plays, it’s easy to follow a guy like that.”

Brown has also shown his development in other areas.

“Just his picking and choosing spots really well,” Joe Mazzulla said. “Picks and chooses his spots, picks and chooses his matchup, picks and chooses his shot selection and plays with a sense of poise. I thought a couple of those kick-outs that he had at the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth were big for us. And one of the best things he’s doing is even if he scores two, three times in a row, the next play is the right play. It’s not a play for him, it’s a play to make the right one. And I think that’s a huge growth for those guys is their ability to do that.”

After failing to close the door in the third quarter when they had a chance to do so, the Celtics needed to fight off one last Cavaliers run in the fourth. Mazzulla called timeout after an Evan Mobley putback cut the Boston lead to 84-75 with 10:29 left. In front of a rowdy Cleveland crowd, White said the Celtics players just needed to breathe.

“JB says it all the time: ‘Just breathe,’” White said. “We were at the same place we were at halftime. So it’s not like they had made any ground up. And people just made big plays. (Payton Pritchard) hit a big-time shot and we just made the plays that we needed to make.”

One minute after Mazzulla’s timeout, Brown drove past Caris LeVert and finished a reverse left-handed layup. Over the rest of the fourth quarter, Brown racked up six more points and one assist. With barely more than three minutes left, he calmly evaded a Max Strus closeout before canning a one-legged 14-footer at the shot clock buzzer. The bucket gave Boston a 102-89 lead.

With it, Brown all but finished what he started by winding up his Celtics teammates. After the slippage of Game 2, he would not accept another subpar effort from his team. With a real chance to win his first championship, he wants to do whatever it takes to lead the way.

“I think that’s what we need,” Brown said, “I think we just need everybody to be on the same page and everybody to come out with the right effort. That’s 85 percent of the battle right there. We come out, we play hard and then 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, those are when we get ourselves in trouble.

“So making sure, before the game, at film and shootaround, talking to everybody, touching everybody, letting everybody know that, ‘Hey, we’re not here to play around.’ We didn’t come to Cleveland for the weather, so let’s go.”

(Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)