Celtics’ Jaylen Brown explodes early, steps up when Boston needed him against Bucks to snatch Game 2


BOSTON — Jaylen Brown strolled into TD Garden, hood over his head, hours before the Celtics’ crucial Game 2 against the Bucks. He got up shots pregame earlier than usual; he sharpened his mind before another dogfight of a basketball game.

Grant Williams said he saw it in Brown’s eyes pregame. Jayson Tatum said if he was a betting man, “I would have bet that JB was going to have a great game.”

The Celtics needed a bounce-back win after their Game 1 loss. Brown played one of his worst games of the season, though the C’s were shut down by the Bucks as a team. There was naturally some interest in how the Celtics would respond to adversity.

Brown stepped up — the Celtics followed. All that mental and physical preparation worked to perfection as Brown scored 30 points, the Celtics beat the Bucks 109-86 and the second-round series was tied up 1-1.

“He’s a guy who is always going to bounce back and play well,” Boston coach Ime Udoka said of Brown. “He’s traditionally done that when he’s had a bad game, so we expected that from him and Jayson.”

The scoring explosion was as necessary as it was quick. Brown said he wasn’t focusing on specifics, nah, “I was just hooping.” Brown talked all season about how basketball is an easy game when he doesn’t overthink it, choosing to let the game come to him.

There was little mental clutter as part of a 17-point first quarter. Brown hit the game’s first bucket, then the first 3-pointer. He was near-perfect as part of a 6-for-7 showing as he played all 12 minutes of the opening quarter. The Celtics used that momentum — coupled with their staunch defense — to sprint ahead of the Bucks and never look back.

“How you respond means everything in this league,” Brown said. “We didn’t play how we wanted to in the first game and we couldn’t come back and drop another game at home. We knew we had to come out and play like our season was on the line — and we did. We came out and fought from the jump.”

Brown looked smooth in his 38 minutes, though his hamstring issue seemed to bother him in the second half. He said he’ll be fine for Game 3, though maintenance is key over the next three days. It’s partly why he said his “life is on pause” during the NBA Playoffs, where his sole focus is on how the Celtics can make just their latest deep postseason run.

Of course, if the Celtics are going to achieve any of their postseason goals, they need Brown and Tatum to produce. That was seen Tuesday as Tatum put up 29 points to complement Brown. While Brown tore it up in the first half, Tatum’s 19 points in the second half kept the Bucks from ever making a real comeback threat.

“He set the tone and that was big for us,” Tatum said of Brown. “Just how aggressive he was coming out making the right plays for himself and for others. He kind of got us going tonight.”

Brown said there was some curiosity about how the Celtics would look in Game 2. They suffered their first loss of the postseason in the second-round opener. It was the first time they faced real adversity in months, since ever since they started the season 18-21. Another loss Tuesday could’ve effectively doomed their season.

All the Celtics did was punch the Bucks right back in the mouth. There was no more timid play in the face of Milwaukee’s physicality in Game 1. The Celtics knocked down 3-pointers to start and end the game as part of a historic shooting night. They credited Brown’s aggressiveness as a key element to their wire-to-wire victory.

“How you respond is everything,” Brown said. “What you’re made of comes to light in those moments, so you got to see what the Celtics were about tonight. And I’m proud of our group, but we’ve got to get ready for the next one, because it’s going to be a dogfight. I expect nothing less; it should be fun.”

The Celtics got big contributions up and down their roster. Grant Williams scored a career-high 21 points while his defense was on point. Al Horford put up a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds; his defense was also doubly crucial. And Boston snatched Game 2 despite Marcus Smart sidelined because of a thigh contusion.

The series shifts to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4, but the Celtics endured an early test. There’s no bigger stage than the postseason, and that’s where Tatum and Brown put together solid performances Tuesday. It was just one step, but an important one as the Celtics tested their mettle and mental fortitude.

“Honestly, we weren’t that tense,” Tatum said. “We all knew that we were going to respond well. As a team, we never really get like that. We trust one another. Even if we ended up 0-2, we knew that we were going to fight back and compete in this series.”

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