Shortly after the Celtics were dealt a heartbreaking 108-105 loss against the New York Knicks on Thursday, Jaylen Brown pulled Jayson Tatum aside for a conversation between the franchise cornerstones.
This has been a disconcerting season for the Celtics so far, filled with blown leads — such as the squandered 25-point margin in New York — and other fourth-quarter lapses.
There has been increasing suggestions Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens should break up the duo, trading Brown for more assets and a legitimate point guard.
The two talked about their roles, their future in Boston. Brown said they are in agreement about their shared desire to help the Celtics restore their reputation as a contender.
Two nights later, Brown led one of the more complete efforts of the season, notching his first triple-double in a 99-75 win over New York in the rematch Saturday night at TD Garden.
This time, the Celtics made sure there would be no late-game heartbreak or dramatic comebacks. Coach Ime Udoka took no chances by keeping most of his frontline players in the game until a win was secured.
Brown finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and Josh Richardson added 17, as the Celtics responded from Thursday’s buzzer-beating collapse.
The Knicks, playing without Celtics nemesis Evan Fournier, never got closer than 16 points in the fourth quarter. Boston dominated this rematch after a rugged first quarter, building a 76-60 lead by the end of the third quarter before cruising in the fourth quarter.
Jayson Tatum added 19 points in 29 minutes while Robert Williams added 12 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocked shots as Boston snapped a two-game losing streak.
Brown had picked up the Celtics’ primary scoring responsibility with Tatum in the COVID-19 protocol, but he struggled with his playmaking, racking up 28 turnovers in his previous six games. But intense film study with Udoka helped improve some of his ball-handling decisions, and he collected his 10th assist with 3 minutes, 57 seconds left in the third period.
The triple double was official when he grabbed a rebound of an RJ Barrett miss with 6:20 left left in the fourth.
“I just think it’s the work over the last weeks,” Brown said. “I’ve pulled a lot of coaches into the film room every single day, to watch, see, learn and get better. This was a game where some of that hard work paid off.”
It’s been a difficult past two games for Brown. He missed a potential tying layup at the buzzer Wednesday night in a 99-97 loss against San Antonio and then scored just four points after an early 12-point outburst against the Knicks, including zero in the fourth quarter.
There have been increasing questions about whether he and Tatum can lead the Celtics to prosperity or even coexist.
“I disagree [with the critics], I think we can play together,” Brown said. “We have played together well for a majority of our career. The last year or so hasn’t gone as expected, but I think a lot of the adversity that we’re going through now will help us grow and get better.
“When we get over this hump, I think there’s a lot of good basketball on the other side.”
Brown said after Thursday’s conversation, he and Tatum are on the “same page.”
“I get where all the frustration comes from but as long as I’m on the same page with him and he’s on the same page with me, that’s what we’re focused on,” Brown said. “Any time you blow a lead like [Thursday], you’re not going to forget it, so we learn from that experience. I know people are tired of hearing that but a lot of learning and growth is still taking place. I’m getting better as a basketball player. Jayson is getting better as a basketball player.”
The Celtics didn’t exactly captivate the home crowd in the early going, allowing the Knicks to race out to a 31-21 lead early in the second period. But behind increased defensive pressure and seven points from Richardson sparked a 23-7 run and the Celtics would not trail after the 3:09 mark of the second period.
Brown opened the third with a pair of buckets. Marcus Smart followed with a 3-pointer for a 54-44 lead as the Celtics went on to lead by double digits the rest of the way.
It came as a welcomed relief for a team that had lost six games in the past 18 days after leading in the fourth quarter.
The defense held the Knicks to 32.7 percent shooting after the opening quarter and 33 points in the second half.
“We said let’s finish the deal this time, not play just one half,” Udoka said. “To give up a 33-point second half is obviously high-level defense. We adjusted our physicality. We’ve done [this] half by half several times this year. Tonight we put a full one together. We’ve seen flashes of it, just consistency and playing a full game. We know we’ll be in good shape, holding somebody to 75.”
The Celtics got a break when Fournier was a late scratch with a thigh bruise, robbing the Knicks of their leading scorer against Boston this season. Fournier averaged 35 points in the first three meetings, including his 41-point performance in Thursday’s thrilling win.
Twenty of Fournier’s 101 made 3-pointers and 105 of his 514 points this season have come against the Celtics. Without Fournier, the Knicks had a difficult time generating offense and Udoka kept his frontline players in the game until the final minutes to secure the victory.