Chris Forsberg

Tatum, Brown pull no punches in putting away Game 4 for Celtics

The Celtics proved Monday they can win with a little grit.

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CLEVELAND -- Boxing might be in his blood, but Jaylen Brown never saw the left hook coming.

So when Jayson Tatum’s maybe-a-bit-too-amped chest slap landed in the final moments of Boston’s Game 4 win in Cleveland on Monday night, Brown recoiled and screamed, “Damn!” just seconds after his game-sealing 3-pointer.

"I wasn’t paying attention and he just comes out of nowhere with a left hook straight to the chest,” said Brown. "I’m going to get him back for that.”

Here are five reasons why we loved the sequence from the closing moments of Boston’s 109-102 triumph at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse:

  1. The Cavaliers had crept back within five — having already triggered Boston’s first crunch-time game (score within five points in the final five minutes) of the entire postseason — and Brown calmly drilled the 3-point shot with 67 seconds to go.
  2. The shot was set up by fellow All-Star Tatum, who drew so much attention coming off a pick-and-roll — with Derrick White as the screener -- that Brown was able to find space as Isaac Okoro, shuffling to help on Tatum, tried desperately to scramble back to contest.
  3. Brown got screened by a referee trying to slide into space, which is what left him infuriated after the play. He was barking at the ref when Tatum landed the emphatic chest slap after Cleveland called timeout.
  4. The Celtics drew a lot of criticism during the regular season for their propensity to bog down in crunch-time situations. After a fourth quarter that featured entirely too much ISO ball, helping the Cavaliers to rally close, it was a nicely-designed set with Tatum willing to defer instead of forcing anything on the drive.
  5. Tatum’s slap said a lot about how amped the Celtics were to finish off the win. It was a ugly, gritty game that probably shouldn’t have had to be as ugly or as gritty because of all the talent the Cavaliers were missing. But the Celtics so frequently played down to shorthanded opponents during the regular season that it didn’t matter how it looked. The Celtics got win No. 7 of the postseason and now have a chance to prevent a return trip to Cleveland.

Brown probably won’t show up on the injury report from the Tatum swing, but it was a hilariously hard strike.

"I didn’t realize how hard I hit him. I’ve been lifting a lot lately,” Tatum quipped after the game. "I was just so -- high-intensity game. I drove, they helped, he hit a big shot. I was hyped.”

A few minutes earlier, after the Cavaliers had first rallied within five, it was Tatum who fumbled the ball on a drive to the basket but recovered to complete a layup to ensure the game got no closer. Watching both Brown and Tatum have big moments in playoff crunch time will be especially encouraging for Celtics fans.

The Jays combined for 60 points on 20-of-40 shooting. It was basically a carbon copy of Game 3, with Tatum finishing with 33 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists. Brown was the more efficient of the two, scoring 27 on 9-of-15 shooting with eight rebounds. Both players struggled with turnovers, combining for nine of Boston’s 14 giveaways that helped undermanned Cleveland stick close.

Alas, there are no style points in the playoffs. The goal is 16 wins and it really doesn’t matter how you get there. The Celtics piled up their first six wins with rather breezy, lopsided, double-digit wins. On Monday, they showed they could win with a little grit.

Boston is now 4-0 on the road this postseason, having won both games inside their opponent's gym after fumbling away Game 2 in both series. The Celtics can ensure their next road game won’t come until the end of the month if they can finishing this semifinal series on Wednesday night at TD Garden.

“It’s been a while since we kind of had that grind-it-out, tough, back-and-forth, fight-it-out game,” said Holiday. "So it felt good to really just get out there and execute and know that any type of game we play, we can execute and get the win.”

The Celtics hadn’t played a true clutch game since April 5 versus the Kings, and it was their reserves who closed out that one-point triumph. Boston’s starters hadn’t played a single crunch-time minute since March 28 during an overtime loss in Atlanta.

That’s 46 days for the starters without ever being thrust into a grind-it-out situation at the end of games. Boston’s 33 clutch games during the regular season were the third-lowest total in the entire league (only New Orleans and Dallas played less).

So when you go a month and a half without having to grind a bit, your emotions run a little hotter. That’s why Brown was barking at that referee. That’s why Tatum’s left hook had a little extra zip on it.

It’s why a game that Boston probably shouldn’t have had to grind to win felt a little more satisfying.

Still, the Celtics won’t get away with that sort of effort moving forward. This team absolutely needs to be better regardless of the circumstances. But in the postseason, a win is a win is a win.

And Tatum and Brown are now one win away from their sixth conference finals appearance in the last eight years.

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