BOSTON — “I think we just got to take more pride in ourselves,” said Jaylen Brown. “That’s it. We just feel like we underperformed last game, and we wanted to come out and play to the best of our ability. And that’s what we did.”
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was a complete and utter disaster for the Boston Celtics. They failed to execute on both ends of the floor and lost to a Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers squad.
In Game 2 on Wednesday night, they made it their mission to avenge that failure.
James Harden scored 45 points in Philadelphia’s Game 1 victory, and despite Embiid’s return to the floor in Game 2, the Celtics still made it a point to shut down Harden.
“We got to tip our hats to JB. He started the whole momentum for us,” said Marcus Smart. “He came out right away, and he set the tone. We just had to follow his lead is setting the tone. When you got one of your best players setting the tone, it’s hard not to follow his lead.”
From tip-off, Brown was scarily locked in on defense. He was clapping in Harden’s face, getting deep into his stance, and picking up the Sixers star full court. Even when Harden didn’t have the ball in his hands, Brown was right there hounding him.
By the end of the first, Malcolm Brogdon took a turn on Harden, notching a block on a three-point shot and clapping it up after the play. Then Smart took a turn, face-guarding Harden on and off the ball.
Harden finished the game with just 12 points on 2-of-14 shooting overall and 0-of-6 shooting from deep.
Boston’s defensive pressure may have started with Harden, but it was a team-wide initiative that shut down the entire 76ers lineup. Following a sloppy, heartless Game 1 effort, it was clear a change was needed.
“Defense is all about pride. Defense is all about effort. We got to do a better job, no matter who’s out there,” said Brown. “Our team defense and our team intensity have been lacking throughout the playoffs and going forward. We got to make sure that we embrace each and every challenge with ball pressure, with intensity, and stuff like that.”
Game 2 presented a whole new challenge with Embiid reentering the lineup, but with Brown’s help, the Celtics rediscovered their defensive mindset, and the MVP’s return was muted.
A healthy mix of Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Smart was enough to slow Embiid down, as the big man only managed 15 points on 4-of-9 shooting.
Boston was determined to regain momentum in the series, and while their offense played a huge part in that, their defense was the foundation.
“It really started with our defense,” said Brogdon. “We were able to get stops and get out. Shots get easier when you get stops. When you’re not getting the ball out of the net over and over. So, we were getting open shots, and we were shooting them with confidence.”
The 76ers poured on 117 points in Game 1, but just two days later, the Celtics’ mental shift allowed them to hold Philadelphia to 30 fewer points.
Last season, Boston’s late-season/postseason surge was defined by top-tier defense. Entering Game 2 against the 76ers, they ranked second worst in defensive efficiency among the remaining playoff teams.
Led by Brown, the Celtics re-established their identity in Game 2. And he’s going to make sure they don’t lose it again.
“You just got to man up and do your job,” said Brown.