Take a deep breath, and then read this next sentence out loud for the full effect:
Whether you zonked out on the couch after the third quarter ended with the Warriors leading by 12, or just want to relive the Celtics’ magical final frame in which they outscored their suddenly beleaguered opponent, 40-16, the operative question this morning can be whittled down to a single word:
The answers to exactly how the Celtics pulled off a staggering shift in momentum and a stirring victory in their first Finals game since 2010 are plural and plentiful.
They would require saluting the exceptional fourth-quarter efforts of, among others, Al Horford (11 of his 26 points), Derrick White (two of his five 3-pointers and six of his 21 points), and in one sense, Tatum, who distributed four of his career-high 13 assists in a performance in which he never wavered from trying to make the right play.
But there was one player who, with spirited and aggressive play at the beginning of the fourth, lit the match that turned into an inferno of comeback. Tell us who it was, Mr. Horford:
“I think that for us the key was Jaylen Brown,” said Horford from the postgame podium. “[At the] start of the fourth quarter, with the way he came out and played, with his energy and scoring, but also then Rob Williams gets a lob dunk [off a Brown pass]. I just think that that was the start for us of something there.”
It was the start of something, something special and something that will be remembered for a long time if the Celtics prevail in this series. And it came at a moment when it was reasonable to wonder if the Celtics were finished, at least for this night.
The Celtics took a 56-54 lead into halftime, having weathered a 21-point first quarter from Steph Curry. But the Warriors came out blazing in the third quarter, outscoring the Celtics, 38-24, and taking a 12-point lead into the fourth.
If your thoughts at that point turned to Game 2 and what the Celtics would need to do to salvage a split at the Chase Center before the series moves to Boston, hey, you couldn’t be blamed. The Warriors can make you feel like they’re inevitable.
But Brown, who has shot 66.7 percent from the field in the fourth quarter during these playoffs, certainly was not thinking that way.
“We knew they were going to come out [aggressive] in the third quarter, and they did. They came out great,” he said. “In those moments, once you realize that you allowed somebody to do something that you didn’t want them to, once you realize that, you either can go two ways: you can let it snowball or you can play to the next play, figure things out.”
After shooting 6 of 17 through the first three quarters, he didn’t just figure things out — he took over.
Near the 11-minute mark, he hit a jumper over Draymond Green. (the Warriors still led, 92-82). Then, a 3-pointer in Jordan Poole’s face, his first make in six attempts to that point from behind the stripe (92-85). After a Poole turnover, Brown set up Robert Williams III for a thunderous dunk (92-87).
Warriors coach Steve Kerr called timeout, but that didn’t solve anything. Brown plucked an errant Andre Iguodala pass from the sky and found Payton Pritchard for a fast-break layup (92-89). Iguodala ended the 9-0 Celtics run with a dunk, but Brown followed that by drilling a corner 3-pointer (94-92).
The Celtics didn’t seize the lead and command of the game for good until a couple minutes later, when Horford hit back-to-back 3 pointers to put the Celtics up, 109-103, in what would be a 17-0 run. But Brown helped punctuate the victory with a nifty dish to Horford for a conventional 3-point play with 48.3 seconds left.
Horford flexed for the Chase Center crowd, maybe 10 percent of whom could tell you who Nate Thurmond was, after what would be the Celtics’ final basket of the night. But it was Brown who did the heavy lifting at the start of the quarter to make it all possible.
Brown finished with 24 points — second for the Celtics to Horford’s 26 — in 38 minutes of playing time. Ten of his points came in the fourth, as did all five of his assists. That second statistic is particularly impressive given that Brown’s playmaking instincts sometimes betray him when he gets too dribble-happy.
“It’s something he’s growing and learning about," said ever-blunt Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “[He’s] still learning to play in that crowd and make the right read at times. Early in the game he … had some turnovers and some tough shots. We showed that at halftime that we don’t have to take any of those.
“[He] had a great start to the fourth quarter. With JT struggling a little bit, we went to him more. He was extremely aggressive getting downhill. Got the bigs switching on him and got the shots that he wanted.”
Brown got the shots he wanted, and he helped get teammates the shots they wanted, too. Before the Warriors knew it, they were barraged with Celtic make after Celtic make, the kind of scoring onslaught they usually deliver rather than endure.
How did the Celtics do it?
Simple: They followed Jaylen Brown’s lead as a deficit turned into a comeback, and then an immensely satisfying victory.