Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum validate keeping them together in Game 3

Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum validate keeping them together in Game 3 thumbnail

BOSTON — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have often been pitted against each other, treated as rivals instead of teammates. When the Celtics struggled to start the season, speculation swirled that Boston’s brass would break them up. Instead, they doubled down and were rewarded with a trip to the Finals. After Wednesday night’s 116–100 win over the Warriors, the Celtics moved within two wins of a title—with Tatum and Brown leading the way.

Boston’s two top scorers combined for 53 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists in Game 3. Brown got hot early, scoring 17 in the first quarter. In Game 2, Golden State switched Draymond Green onto Brown, who had his second-worst shooting game (27.4%) of the playoffs. But in Game 3, the Celtics successfully forced switches, leaving Brown free to attack Klay ThompsonKevon Looney and Jordan Poole. Backed by a raucous home crowd of more than 19,000 fans, the Celtics jumped out to a 33–22 first-quarter lead.

In the second quarter it was Tatum’s turn. Early on, Golden State’s offense started to click. Thompson struck for 10 points in the quarter. After shooting the ball poorly in the first two games—he made 42.9% of his shots in Game 1 and 21.1% of his shots in Game 2—Thompson moved fluidly, rubbing off screens for catch-and-shoot jump shots, spotting up on the wing for drive-and-kicks. But as Thompson warmed up, so did Tatum. He scored eight points in the quarter, chipping in five assists. Marcus Smart added six points. Derrick White came off the bench to score five. At halftime the Celtics held a commanding 68–56 lead.

Third quarters, of course, have plagued Boston in this series, and Game 3 was no different. The Warriors came out of the locker room hot. Steph Curry scored 15 of his 31 points. Thompson racked up another 10. With four minutes to play in the quarter, Golden State, which trailed by as many as 18, seized a one-point lead.

The Celtics, though, rallied.

Boston Celtics center Al Horford (right) reacts after guard Jaylen Brown (left) blocks a shot by the Golden State Warriors.

Brown (left) scored 17 points in the first quarter to set the tone for Boston in Game 3.

Boston’s depth has been a factor in its wins this season, and it was again on Wednesday. An hour before the game, Al Horford, the senior Celtic at 36, took the court to thunderous applause from the fans gathered near the floor. After an ugly Game 2, he came out aggressive in Game 3, making 5-of-7 for 11 points and adding eight rebounds and six assists.

Robert Williams’s knee issues have been well chronicled. Williams has been listed as questionable before every game this series, his availability effectively depending on his pain tolerance. He played in Game 3, and played well in 26 minutes, totaling 10 rebounds, blocking four shots and altering several more. After committing 18 turnovers in Game 2, the Celtics turned it over just 12 times in Game 3. Backed by Williams, Horford and Grant Williams (10 points, five rebounds), Boston outrebounded Golden State 47–21.

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“We want to impose our size and will in this series,” said Ime Udoka after the game.

Udoka has pushed Robert Williams all season. He has harped on Williams playing through pain. Williams has responded, playing a career-high 61 games in the regular season and returning to the lineup just one month after knee surgery. Williams is obviously limited—the usually springy big man labors when forced to run up the floor—but that hasn’t lowered Udoka’s expectations. After Thompson knocked down a three in front of Williams late in the third, Udoka could be seen on the sidelines barking at Williams to jump to contest the shot.

“I’m just trying to be accountable for my team,” Williams said. “We made it this far. I had a discussion with myself about pushing through this, but I’m happy with how it’s going. We’ll worry about the injury at the end of the season. But for now, I’m still fighting.”

In the fourth, Boston closed the show. Udoka said he felt the Celtics “wilted” in the second half of Game 2. In Game 3, they surged. Smart scored eight of his 24 points while limiting Curry to just two in the final 12 minutes. After getting shredded in the third, the Celtics’ defense tightened in the fourth, holding the Warriors to 33.3% shooting and 11.1% from three. Green, who acknowledged after Game 2 that he received preferential treatment from referees, finished with two points, fouling out midway through the quarter.

The Celtics lead 2–1 and have left Golden State looking for answers. Curry was hobbling late in the fourth quarter (“We’ll know more tomorrow,” said Steve Kerr) and the Warriors will need to find offense beyond Curry, Thompson and Andrew Wiggins (18 points) to keep pace with a Boston team that had seven players score seven points or more.

For the Celtics, Udoka says, it’s about maintaining the intensity. “The message was, ‘We’ve done this after losses. It’s time to do it after wins,’” Udoka said. Later, he added, “We’ve been battle tested throughout the playoffs. We’ve seen what makes us successful and just have to have it carry over.”

And for Tatum and Brown? Months after public calls for them to be separated, Boston’s cornerstones are two wins away from a championship. 

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