The early bird gets the … win. Jaylen Brown was an early arrival to TD Garden Tuesday, showing up at the arena around 3:40 p.m. for a 7 p.m. tip. He packed additional preparation time and an added sense of urgency into his schedule for Game 2 against the Bucks.
Brown announcing his arrival in this Eastern Conference semifinal series couldn’t have come at a better time.
After operating on a different schedule, Brown was a different player, atoning for a rough Game 1 by dropping 25 first-half points. He made nine of his first 10 shots and drilled all of five of his 3-pointers in the opening half as the Celtics accelerated like a nitro-fueled drag racer and never looked back to even the series with a 109-86 win.
Brown’s team-high 30 points to go along with 6 assists and 5 boards set the tone.
“He came in locked in,” said Celtics forward Grant Williams. “He showed up to the arena hours early. I saw it in his eyes.
“He established that tone, set that mark of aggression on the offensive end, not only just playing in the right way and knocking down open shots, but also moving it. That’s one of those things that he has improved on throughout his career. You have to admire that about him — that he’s continued to get better, him and JT both.
“JB was a huge leader, a huge part of this win.”
After Brown and Jayson Tatum shot a shaky 10 for 31 and were muscled off their spots and into tough shots in Game 1, the Jays responded with an offensive master class. They combined for 59 points while shooting a combined 55.3 percent (21 of 38) to reset the series and restore the Celtics’ biggest advantage — that two stars shine brighter than one.
While the Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, a two-time NBA MVP, Milwaukee is without Khris Middleton. If the Celtics are going to dethrone the defending NBA champions, it’s going to be on the strength of their two 25-and-under All-Stars. Boston needs their best in a series that stands as a measuring stick for them and their team.
Without core compatriot Marcus Smart, rendered unavailable by a right thigh contusion, the Celtics needed even more from the Jays. They got it.
As another noteworthy Jay — Jay-Z — rapped in “Encore,” it was grand opening, grand closing.
Brown was the opener, setting the terms in a game in which the Celtics never trailed. His first-quarter barrage of baskets staggered the Bucks — literally. Brown shook Grayson Allen so thoroughly on an 18-foot jumper in the first quarter that Allen staggered and his posterior ended up on the parquet. Brown turned Milwaukee’s defense from manacle to meme.
Tatum provided the finisher. Taking the baton from Brown, he scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half, including 10 in the fourth, to keep the Bucks at arm’s length and send the series to the Midwest at a game apiece.
Tatum also played distributor, making Milwaukee pay for its help defense and hedges by leading the Celtics with 8 assists.
In Game 1, Milwaukee put the clamps on Brown (12 points on 13 shots) and Tatum, who shot 6 of 18, flummoxing them. This time the Bucks are left to regroup.
“We were a little off-kilter offensively,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka of Game 1. “For Jaylen, he’s a guy that’s always going to bounce back and play well. He’s traditionally done that when he has had a bad game. We expected that from him and Jayson tonight.”
So did Brown’s partner after realizing he arrived to the Garden with a fast watch and a purpose. Managing a balky hamstring, Brown primed his pump, physically and mentally.
“If I was a betting man, I would’ve bet that JB would have a great game,” said Tatum. “He set the tone. That was big for us, just how aggressive he was coming out and making the right plays for himself and for others. He got us going.”
Brown and Tatum are the two most important elements in the Celtics’ formula for success. They’re always lumped together, but they’re different players and people. They’re fire and ice.
Brown burns with a bonfire of intensity, focus, and passion. He called playoff basketball “survival of the fittest.” You can hear it in his voice and in his words in interviews. He’s intense.
Tatum’s outward visage after games is a little like his game — cool, smooth, natural. The fieriest Tatum’s speech gets is usually when he’s complaining to the referees.
But opposites attract, and in their case, they don’t detract from each other.
Working through in-season adversity and external doubt about their partnership helped the dynamic duo bounce back against the Bucks.
“How you respond is everything in this league,” said Brown, who finished 11 of 18 from the field. “We didn’t play as well as we wanted to the first game, and we couldn’t come back and drop another game at home. We knew we had to come out and play like our season was on the line, and we did.”
But it wasn’t only Brown and Tatum who snapped back into form.
The Celtics came out with better ball movement and generated better looks. They made midrange jump shots instead of narrowing their menu to trying to get to the rim through a thicket of bodies or taking first-look threes.
The Green shot a scorching 59 percent in the first 24 minutes to take a 25-point lead and drilled 13 of 20 3-pointers, setting a franchise postseason record for threes in a half.
Contributing offensively and with sticky defense on Antetokounmpo, who started 2 for 12, Williams scored a career-high 21 points and drilled six of his nine threes, tying Brown (6 of 10) for the most treys.
Tatum chipped in with five threes on 10 attempts, including a back-breaking corner triple at the shot-clock buzzer with 4:05 left that left no doubt. Of course, that shot came off a feed from Brown.
“We found some great possessions of Celtic basketball,” said Brown.
That’s because the Jays found their footing and their groove in the series, and it was right on time for the Celtics.