On the Boston Celtics’ first possession on Saturday night, Marcus Smart came off a screen and threw a cross-court pass to Jayson Tatum on the opposite wing. Tatum immediately tossed it back, and Smart went to work, putting a little dribbling move on Jae Crowder, before going straight to the rim. He took the contact, reversed to the other side of the rim and converted the and-one.
Smart’s play set the tone for the night, as the Celtics jumped out to another early double-digit lead. This time, despite some sloppy play in the last few minutes, they held on, winning Game 3 117-106 to get back in the series at 2-1. Jaylen Brown led the scoring department with 26 points, Jayson Tatum had 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists to tie LeBron James for the most playoff games with at least 25/10/5 before turning 23 and four Celtics finished with at least 20 points in the win.
The story of the night, however, was the Celtics’ aggressiveness on the offensive end. They finished with 60 points in the paint and 30 free throw attempts, both of which were postseason highs. In the first two games of this series combined, the Celtics had 72 points in the paint 47 free throws.
During an interview with Rachel Nichols at the end of the third quarter, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra summed up the Celtics’ approach well. “They’re playing with a different level of force,” Spoelstra said.
After the Celtics’ collapses in the last two games, that’s not surprising. They blew a 14-point lead in Game 1, and a 17-point lead in Game 2, then had an emotional post-game meeting in the locker room that was so loud reporters waiting in the hallway could hear players yelling at each other.
The only excitement after Saturday night, though, was about how well the Celtics responded. “I was curious to see what would happen tonight, but I didn’t have much doubt,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think this group has some good character.”
They were outworked and out-executed down the stretch in the first two games of his series, but made sure that didn’t happen again. Time after time, they drove the ball into the teeth of Miami’s defense, refusing to settle for the low-percentage perimeter shots that had plagued their offense at various points in this series. Their 26 3-point attempts in Game 3 were a playoff low.
Just take a look at their shot chart. There are so many green dots around the rim that you can’t even tell the different makes apart.
Celtics’ shot chart from Game 3
But while the team as a whole responded well, and were boosted by the return of Gordon Hayward, who finished with six points, five rebounds and four assists off the bench, it was Jaylen Brown who really stood out. He was one of the key figures involved in the reported blow-up after Game 3, and bounced back with one of his best games of the playoffs, finishing with 26 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Off cuts, on the dribble drive, in transition, Brown was going straight at the Heat all night long, getting himself easy baskets and earning numerous trips to the free throw line. One play in the middle of the third quarter exemplified Brown and the Celtics’ attitude in Game 3.
Brown comes up to the top of the key to set a screen for Kemba Walker, who drives at Duncan Robinson on the switch. Crowder shifts over to show help, so Walker whips a pass out to Brown on the wing. Given how far Crowder has to recover, Brown could have gotten off a decent look from 3, but he never even thought about taking that shot. He’s moving towards the basket before he even catches the ball, zooms past Crowder and finishes right over Bam Adebayo with no fear whatsoever.
“What I do best is get to the basket,” Brown said. “I just wanted to come out and be the best version of myself.”
He was, and so too were the Celtics. But for as good a performance as this was, it’s just one game, and they’re still down 2-1. Come Game 4, they’ll have to do it again if they want to even up the series. Judging by Browns’s comments, they’ll be ready.
“The game don’t start on Wednesday,” Brown said. “The game starts now.”