MIAMI — After Jaylen Brown committed his third turnover in the opening quarter in what has been a mistake-filled series, Celtics coach Ime Udoka yanked him with 34.9 seconds left in the quarter to allow him to cool down and focus.
The Heat were just stripping Brown of the ball, to the point where his turnovers were damaging the Celtics’ chances to win the biggest game of Brown’s career. Udoka usually doesn’t make substitutions so late in quarters, but Brown needed a break. It was his 11th turnover in the past two-plus games and it was either be steadier or watch from the sideline.
Brown’s weaknesses for ball-handling and free-throw shooting have been exposed during the playoffs, but when he takes a deep breath, relies on his skill set and plays with complete concentration, he is one of the best players in the NBA.
That Brown arrived after halftime, lifting the Celtics as they rallied from a 5-point deficit to overwhelm the battered and offensively futile Heat. He scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half as Boston finally avoided the mistakes and lackadaisical plays that plagued it in the first half, especially Brown.
The Celtics prevailed, 93-80, Wednesday at FTX Arena, primarily because Brown played like the perennial All-Star he strives to be. Luckily for the Celtics, they weren’t burned by his listless first-half performance, leaving plenty of opportunity for a second-half resurgence, as he paired with Jayson Tatum to score 37 of the Celtics’ 56 second-half points.
Udoka is brutally honest with his players, and that conversation with 34.9 seconds left in the first period required tough love. Brown was too loose with the ball, dribbling into triple teams and expecting to make it through unscathed.
It was as if Brown was trying to run through Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert and Ronnie Lott without fumbling. There had to be a better way.
“It’s the same thing, the crowd is there, you’re acting like you’re surprised that they’re reaching and poking him from behind,” Udoka said he told Brown. “It wasn’t as much like live ball turnovers, trying to make a nice pass. It was literally getting taken from us. Be strong with the ball. Five games in now, we’re having too many of these types of turnovers, not being strong with the ball in the crowd. He understood that.”
Brown is a stubborn dude. He admitted to the turnovers but also added that Miami’s reach-ins and hand checks that caused the strips weren’t being called. In the second half, the game began to open for him. He and Tatum each played with more pace and were more relaxed. They stopped pressing, trying to make the home-run play and relied on their talent to overwhelm Miami.
“Same player, just had to get settled in,” Brown said. “That’s it. As the game wears on, some of that energy, some of that intensity starts to wear off, so the game opens up a little bit. The game opened up for me in the second half. I didn’t want to get down. I didn’t want to look into the past, think that this game was over. My team needed me to come out and respond. First half was [expletive], threw it away. Come out, play basketball in the second half.”
What is so alluring about Brown is his ability to suddenly knock down shots in bunches. He opened the third quarter with a layup and then hit a pair of jumpers in the final 1 minute, 40 seconds to help the Celtics extend their lead to 11.
The Celtics have been susceptible to poor quarters in this series and they were wary of a fourth-quarter breakdown despite a double-digit lead. Brown drained three 3-pointers in a 2:26 span to extend the lead to 23. He then capped his performance with a soaring dunk, driving into the heart of the Miami defense, daring anyone to challenge him. Even Bam Adebayo, second-team all-defense and Miami’s best rim protector, decided to back down as Brown hammered home the dunk. It punctuated the Celtics’ sixth road victory of the postseason, and Brown responded from a 5-for-20 shooting performance in Game 4.
It’s that stubbornness that enables Brown to respond so quickly from adversity, to convince himself he can ascend after looking inept offensively in the first half. He’s going to keep attacking the paint, sometimes making turnovers but the end result has almost always been positive in this rather remarkable season for the Celtics.
“I’m going to keep being aggressive,” Brown said. “I’m going to keep getting into the paint, making them stop me. I just got to do a better job of finding the right guy. Hopefully next game some of those hand-checking calls, I’ll get one. But I’m going to keep being aggressive and keep getting into the paint.
“Miami does a good job of slapping down and reaching and grabbing, making it tough for you. It’s a little bit of both. I got to do a better job, for sure, but overall as a team, we got to do a better job, too.”
Udoka wasn’t asking Brown to be anything by himself. He was asking Brown to be his best self.
“Anytime Jaylen is on the second side [of the offensive set], he’s lethal, whether it’s the catch-and-shoot or pull-it,” Udoka said. “We found him coming out of timeouts for some quick drives that got him going.
“His aggression was great. He made decisive decisions quick and didn’t play in the crowd. He took care of the ball, got shots up.
“Whether he takes a tough pull-up, some guys are tough shot-makers, and he’s one of them. We’d rather have him do that 100 percent of the time rather than turn the ball over. We just told him to get shots up, see the crowd, get off the ball, but be aggressive when we need it and he did it.”