Being a part of the Boston Celtics in the 2018-2019 season has been rough. For players, staff, media, and fans, the unpredictability of a team so deeply talented and so obviously flawed grew beyond frustrating. It’s not quite the misery of a sub-20 win season, but the mercurial and amorphous season-long performance from a team that was anointed for The Finals long before they played a single game was maddening. By the end of the season, a pre or post-game quote from anyone in the organization about not getting too high or too low—head coach Brad Stevens or players themselves—felt like the party line with no policy behind it.
But then came Game 2 in Boston against the Indiana Pacers. And finally—finally—this Celtics team took hard punches from an Indiana team on fire from the field, stayed up, and played hard for nearly all 48 minutes.
“Indiana, tip your hat off to them,” said Boston swingman Jaylen Brown. “They played a really tough game. I think we took, probably, their best shots and we came out and we weathered the storm, came out victorious. Just a resilient group that we have in this locker room. We got to keep it up.”
Brown’s performance—6 points and 9 rebounds in the shadow of masterful offensive work from Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum—showed a different side of the young forward. Starting in place of the injured Marcus Smart, Brown didn’t need to come out firing for double digits and his floor-shaking dunks. He needed to replace some form of Smart’s defensive genius and effort to try and limit Pacers scorer Bojan Bogdanovic.
There was selflessness in Brown’s game tonight, so too with Terry Rozier. Neither player lit up the box score, neither hit a highlight-worthy shot, but neither let the 79-68 deficit at the end of the third quarter stop them from running hard.
“We got enough guys who can score the ball,” said Brown, speaking of Irving, Tatum, and Gordon Hayward. “We got to have some guys who grit their teeth and find a way to make plays and find a way to make things happen in the fourth quarter.”
Boston was far from perfect tonight—but perfection isn’t this team, not yet and maybe not ever. As they slowly re-brand themselves, just in the nick of time, Brown’s role flexibility paid dividends with a play that should outshine any of his spectacular dunks this season.
Tonight's Play of the Game is a spectacular glimpse at the team-oriented play that stole the game away from Indiana late in the fourth! pic.twitter.com/PxrYCplGxb— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 18, 2019
That play got Brown kudos from Stevens after the game. The Celtics head coach was particularly proud of Brown’s read—seeing Myles Turner arrive at the rim for the contest and making the jump pass to a wide open Tatum in the corner.
And that’s the stuff resilient playoff teams are made of.
“He could’ve easily shot the layup,” said Tatum. “We were all on the same page towards the end. We were making great plays and getting stops.”
Something magical happens when players put their heads down and make plays for each other all game long. The deficits stop feeling like self-fulfilling prophecies written in tablets handed down by NBA media. The sound of fans gnawing at their cuticles about 2019 free agency fades away and the roar of the home crowd rushes in. The players say it’s invigorating. It might even be stabilizing. Stevens’s endless din of mental toughness platitudes finally start to take on some shine.
“We’ve been through enough of these games where 12 points isn’t that much,” said Stevens. “You just play again, play the next possession, hit singles, and make it as tough as possible. It’s a hard game and they were terrific tonight, and we were just good enough to get by.”
Maybe this Game 2 performance was Boston settling into themselves, riding the growing wave of the playoffs. Perhaps the push and pull of who gets the ball when to make the big plays will stop sucking this team under and they’ll find the right frame of mind to ride the energy. Work hard, run the floor, share the ball, and accept the beauty of Irving’s razzle-dazzle for what it is: that special postseason oomph that any title contender needs.
“I was really encouraged by the way we shared the shared the ball and just made the right play. And then Kyrie was special,” said Stevens.
But the wave ain’t cresting yet. There’s a lot more work to be done.
“We’ve been up 2-0 heading to Washington two years ago, heading to Milwaukee last year, heading to Philly last year, heading to Cleveland, and then three of those game we got our doors blown off in the first six minutes of the game,” said Stevens. “Every game’s its own entity. You don’t think about how good you play it or how lucky you were. You try to get it done, you move on to what’s next, play the next possession and it’s hard. We have to be ready for what’s coming in Game 3.”