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2018 NBA Playoffs

Boston Celtics blow chance to gain control of series against the Cleveland Cavaliers

Jaylen Brown: ‘We gotta find our groove’ after dropping two straight in Cleveland


CLEVELAND — Jaylen Brown appeared shook as he fielded questions in the Boston Celtics’ locker room after Monday’s Game 4 loss to Cleveland — which would probably be the reaction of anyone who got three shots rejected by Kyle Korver, of all people, in a crucial Eastern Conference finals game.

“It’s the best two of three to go to the NBA Finals,” was Brown’s robotic response when asked about his team’s dilemma. “What more can you ask for?”

Jayson Tatum, the Boston rookie who entered this series having scored 20 points in seven straight playoff games, wore the same dispirited look when asked about a game so tightly officiated that he was never allowed to establish any rhythm.

“It’s the best two of three to go to the NBA finals,” said Tatum, who hasn’t scored 20 points this series. “That’s pretty exciting.”

It’s clear the Celtics were sticking to talking points after Monday’s 111-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, especially as coach Brad Stevens stepped to the postgame podium reciting nearly the exact same words as his players.

“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals,” Stevens said. “Doesn’t get better than that.”

At least as you watched Stevens deliver his lines, you left thinking his feelings were being conveyed with conviction and belief.

That was far from the case while listening to Tatum and Brown. The two will have to quickly shake off the two losses in Cleveland as they return to Boston on Wednesday in a series that’s now tied at two games.

On quick first glance, the overall numbers from Brown and Tatum in Game 4 weren’t bad: Brown scored a team-high 25 points in 40 minutes, while Tatum added 17.

“It’s the best two of three to go to the NBA Finals.”

But Tatum missed eight of his 13 shots from the field, his worst shooting performance in 11 playoff games, and was a nonfactor on the boards (two rebounds).

Brown did all he could to help Boston get back in the game after falling behind by 19 points in the first half. But he’s going to have nightmares about a missed dunk and how he made Korver resemble Dikembe Mutombo.

Brown tried to drive on Korver with the Celtics down 10 late in the first quarter. When Brown’s first shot got swatted, he threw his right hand down in disgust. (That turned into a George Hill 3-pointer and a 30-17 Cleveland lead.)

Brown tried to follow up his own miss when he was blocked the second time by Korver in the opening minute of the second quarter — a play that found him lying on his back with his hands covering his face in disbelief. (Korver was fouled on a 3-point attempt on the other end and made all three of his free throws.)

The last time Brown was blocked by Korver came late in the second quarter on a drive that was more of a strip than a rejection.

These three plays illuminate the point that the Celtics need a better game plan in attacking Korver, who lacks any type of real lift but still had his most blocks in a game since swatting away three attempts by the Toronto Raptors in the third game of last year’s conference finals.

Even ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy delivered this gem in reference to the three blocks Brown suffered at the hands of Korver: “If Kyle Korver blocks your shot twice, there should be a penalty box you must immediately go to.”

“That’s a guy who’s all about winning, and whatever it takes to win,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said of Korver. “Kyle is just a pro’s pro.”

That admiration of the 37-year-old Korver was echoed by LeBron James, who finished with 44 points and passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leader for postseason field goals.

“I’ve loved Kyle Korver ever since we made the trade to get him here,” James said of his teammate, who also entered the league in 2003. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic, and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it.”

This is hardly a Boston loss that falls on the shoulders of Brown and Tatum.

While all five Boston starters scored in double figures, Marcus Morris (10 points) was the only one to hit half his shots — and he was saddled with foul trouble the entire game after picking up his third in the opening period.

And Marcus Smart, a key player off the Boston bench, didn’t hit his first field goal until there was 4:29 left in the game. Smart missed six of his eight shots and committed five turnovers.

Boston’s biggest problem going forward will be what to do defensively in pick-and-roll situations. Their tendency had been to switch everything, which resulted in unfavorable matchups for Terry Rozier — many of those against James.

That left the Boston defense scrambling, and if James wasn’t easily shooting over the top of Rozier, he was making the right pass, leading to open looks for his teammates.

“[James] is the best in the game in evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Stevens said. “He’s going to go after whoever he wants to go after.”

Now the series stands as the best two of three. And, on paper, it’s advantage Boston.

The Celtics have won all nine of their home playoff games, including the first two of this series. And in addition to Wednesday’s Game 5 in Boston, the Celtics will have a potential Game 7 at home on Sunday.

But on a team where Al Horford is the only player with extensive playoff experience, do the Celtics really know what it takes to close a playoff series against an experienced team?

And in a best two out of three scenario in a conference final, do you really bet against an all-time great James, who is looking to play in his eighth straight NBA Finals?

A loss for James against a young Celtics team would only intensify America’s love-hate relationship with the game’s best player.

Stevens, in his postgame remarks, would have you believe that the Celtics are in the driver’s seat.

“Everything is tough,” Stevens said. “In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again.”

While Tatum and Brown said the right things after the Game 4 loss, their postgame demeanor wasn’t as assuring as their coach’s.

They might have come to the realization that their best bet for beating the Cavaliers would have been to win at least one of the games in Cleveland.

In Boston’s two wins at home, the Cavaliers’ offense was James and little else.

In Boston’s two losses on the road, the entire Cavaliers roster arrived to offer James support, which makes the Celtics’ ability to win two of the next three games challenging.

“We gotta find our groove, me and JT,” Brown said. “There’s a lot that’s asked of us. We’ve been resilient all year. We just have to play with a bit more poise.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.