ATLANTA — When it was over, with the job done Sunday, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were a few feet apart ready to conduct postgame interviews, and they embraced. Tatum and Brown are brothers in this effort to return to the NBA apex.
They have been chasing the crown for years, this year may be their best chance, and they have to be great when the moments call for greatness.
Such was the case in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics were precariously holding on to a 5-point lead entering the final period. They toyed with putting the Hawks away all evening but just couldn’t do it, and Atlanta was making another run.
As the Celtics walked onto the State Farm Arena floor for that final period, it was undeniable what needed to occur over the next 12 minutes for victory. Tatum and Brown needed to be their best. They needed to be better than counterparts Trae Young and Dejounte Murray.
The Celtics duo lifted their team when it mattered most, starting with back-to-back buckets to increase the lead to 10. They then took turns thrusting daggers into the Hawks hopes of evening the series. Brown and Tatum combined for 28 of Boston’s 37 fourth-quarter points as the Celtics prevailed, 129-121.
The cornerstones picked up their games at different moments for different reasons. Brown broke his cheekbone on Feb. 8 on a collision with Tatum and has been wearing a black protective mask since. Although he grew more comfortable with the fit in recent weeks, he decided to ditch the mask for the second half on Sunday.
“As soon as I took it off, things started to turn around,” Brown said. “Today I just needed something different. I didn’t know what it was.”
The result was a more aggressive Brown; he fearlessly attacked the rim, scoring buckets or drawing fouls.
For Tatum, two moments fueled him.
The first was a head blow to the stomach by Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, where Tatum pointedly asked him, “What the (bleep) are you doing?” And then there was a flagrant foul committed by Trae Young with 7 minutes, 28 seconds left in the third quarter, where Tatum rose quickly as if he was ready to retaliate but then marched past Young to the free throw line.
“I wasn’t mad. I know I looked like it,” Tatum said. “I just wanted to scare them a little bit.”
Tatum and Brown reacted to the challenge of the Hawks by producing their best stretches of the series. Game 3 proved the Hawks are no slouch and this wouldn’t be a cakewalk series. The Celtics led for the final 44:18 in Game 4 but couldn’t build the lead beyond 14 points, and the Hawks cut the deficit to 5 with 4:11 left.
Brown responded by attacking the basket on consecutive possessions, sucking in the defender and finding Robert Williams open twice at the rim. Tatum added a pair of free throws and then a 33-footer with 2:05 left to seal the win.
“I think this was a great win for us,” Brown said. “This was our first road test (in the playoffs). Give credit to the Hawks, they came out and fought, especially in these last two home games. Some of the game plan stuff just goes out of the window. You’ve got to win your matchup. You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to rebound and it turns from a basketball game to a dogfight.”
On the hug with Tatum, Brown said: “We were just celebrating that moment”
As the playoffs progress, the Celtics are going to need excellence from Tatum and Brown in these clutch moments. Tatum took responsibility for the Game 3 loss because of a couple of missed shots and lack of offensive execution in the final minutes.
On Sunday, Tatum wasn’t as efficient scoring (8 for 20 shooting) but added three blocked shots and a couple of key rebounds as the Celtics won the rebounding battle after being trounced in Game 3. The Celtics star made star plays when they needed to take control of this series.
“Those two guys have been around a long time and been through a lot of games,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “So as long as they feel the support and are empowered and the accountability, I thought both of them took a stance defensively and decided to play and have a positive impact on both sides. When they do it on both ends, we’re dynamic.
“It sets the tone for our other guys. It just sets a level of connectivity. If you want to win, you have to do that. More often than not they do but tonight they drew a line in the sand.”
The Celtics have enough depth that Brown and Tatum don’t need to carry them every night, but they have to be at their best when that’s required. The Celtics were clinging to a lead and couldn’t afford to lose it to further extend the series.
The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks are struggling with the Miami Heat while Joel Embiid’s knee issues may hamper the Philadelphia 76ers star for the next series. The path to the Finals is beginning to clear for the Celtics and they want to avoid a lengthy first-round series, and with Tatum and Brown, that likely won’t happen.