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BOSTON – Philadelphia’s Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics Monday night was sparked by the insertion of feisty guard T.J. McConnell into the starting lineup. So, the C's countered Wednesday night with a lineup change of their own, hoping that it would help ignite a close-out, Game-5 victory over the 76ers.
For the first time in the series, coach Brad Stevens placed Jaylen Brown into the starting rotation, and it paid off big time. The 21-year-old wing provided a major offensive spark, tallying 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the field to help lead Boston to a 114-112, series-clinching win.
Brown started every game that he had appeared in during the regular season, as well as the first seven games of the Playoffs. However, a hamstring injury during Game 7 of the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks would derail his streak heading into the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Brown missed Game 1 against Philly because of the injury, so Marcus Smart took his place in the starting rotation.
When Brown returned for Game 2, Stevens decided to have him come off the bench, partly because he was facing a minutes restriction, and partly because the coach didn’t want him to have to deal with defending J.J. Redick’s off-ball cutting while nursing a strained hamstring.
The Celtics opted to keep Smart in as the starting 2-guard for Games 3 and 4, as well, but a shoulder injury to Shane Larkin prompted the team to return Brown to a starting role.
“With Shane out, we didn’t have a back-up point,” explained Stevens. “If Smart or Terry (Rozier) would’ve gotten fouls early, we would’ve been forced to play them extended minutes without a break.”
Stevens approached Brown and Smart, respectively, before the game to tell them of the lineup change, and both players agreed that the move would likely benefit the team.
With Smart out of the starting five, the C’s were positioning themselves to have slightly less of a defensive edge out of the gate. However, Brown would give them more of an offensive presence, which they lacked during Game 4 when they tallied a series-low 92 points.
Brown made a massive impact on that end Wednesday night, as he scored six of Boston’s first eight points during the opening two and a half minutes of the first quarter to help get its offense rolling.
The second-year forward would end up with only two more points for the rest of the half, but he really picked things up again after the break.
The Celtics, for the most part, experienced a rocky third quarter, but Brown was able to catch fire. He scored half of the team's 22 points during the frame, connecting on all four of his shot attempts from the field in the process.
Boston was outscored by eight points during the third, but Brown’s 11-point effort kept them hanging onto a one-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Brown’s hand stayed hot as the final frame began, as he hit a pull-up jumper on Boston’s first possession of the quarter to put them ahead by three points. Ersan Ilyasova would tie up the game with a trey on Philly’s first trip up the court, but Brown answered back immediately with a triple of his own to put the Celtics back up by three points.
Overall, it was by far the most impactful game of the series for Brown. And for the first time since suffering the hamstring injury, he looked like he was playing freely without any sign of tentativeness.
After the game, Brown said that he was playing as if it was Game 7, and his numbers certainly reflected that attitude. His 76.9 percent shooting clip from the field matched his career high when attempting 10 or more shots in a game, proving that he was locked in all night long.
The effort left veteran teammate Al Horford impressed, as he took into consideration how far Brown has come since his rookie campaign.
Last postseason, Brown averaged just 3.3 points and 10.8 minutes per game through the first two rounds. This postseason, those numbers have skyrocketed to 16.2 PPG and 32.1 MPG through the first two rounds.
“This year it’s been great just seeing him not shy away from the moment and being one of those guys that’s a two-way player,” said Horford. “He defends, but he also, on offense, is efficient. He just keeps improving whether it’s his shooting, whether it’s his passing, his feel for the game and I’ve been just very impressed with his progress.”
Horford also noted that if it weren’t for Brown’s progress from Year 1 to Year 2, then the Celtics never would have been in a position to win this series.
There was no better example of Brown’s progress than the effort he put forth Wednesday night, as he returned to Boston’s starting lineup and helped to kick-start its offense straight into an Eastern Conference Finals rematch against the Cleveland Cavaliers.