The simplest possible way to tell the story of the Celtics’ Game 2 beatdown of the Bucks is to talk about Jaylen Brown’s eyes. His teammates all said they could see a special sort of manic glint in them. “He came in locked in,” Grant Williams said after the 109-86 victory. “When he came into the arena I saw it in his eyes.” Brown’s co-star Jayson Tatum said. “JB was locked in. Locked in from last game, locked in from shootaround. If I were a betting man, I would have bet he was going to have a great game. He set the tone. That was big for us.”
Brown was smothered in Game 1, shooting just 4-for-13, but he wrangled a commanding lead for Boston the second Game 2 started, scoring 10 points in the first half of the first quarter as the Celtics grabbed an 18-3 lead. Brown finished the first half with 25 points on 9-for-10 shooting, hit all of his threes, and set the tone for a ferocious Celtics team that took it straight at Milwaukee one game after the Bucks’ physicality wrecked them. With the Celtics facing their first serious bit of trouble since they morphed into a championship-level team in January, Brown played with an unmatchable level of intensity and focus. Again, the eyes: the first question of Brown’s postgame presser concerned his teammates’ observation about his intense look. Brown was blunt. “It’s the playoffs. That’s it,” he said.
And what of the eyes of his opponents? The clear highlight of the game was Brown putting Grayson Allen on his ass with a stepback move in the first quarter. The crowd cheered as Allen hit the deck then roared as Brown cashed the jumper. Allen, meanwhile, twisted his face into a gnarled yelp as he stared at Brown, helpless to do anything. I will allow the possibility that Allen “just kind of has one of those faces” but also, look at his grimace. Brown, meanwhile, was expressionless as he jogged back on defense.
One minute later, Brown also put Giannis Antetokounmpo in the pain cave with a similar move, before using the extra defensive attention he earned to set up Tatum as the Celtics fended off every would-be Bucks run with ease. The Celtics played a very tight rotation, with only Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard playing meaningful minutes off the bench. That they could continue making the right pass on more or less every play without Marcus Smart’s facilitation was impressive (see below); that they managed the best defensive performance of their playoffs against a huge, burly Bucks team was even more impressive. Milwaukee made just three threes, Antetokounmpo shot 11-for-27, and the Celtics had 10 steals. This Game 2 lockdown performance was preceded by a game in which Milwaukee imposed their will by being bigger and stronger than Boston, and I will simply note here how rare it is for an Antetokounmpo team to diminish as a postseason series progresses forward (the 2019 Raptors series is the classic counterexample here).
Milwaukee’s ability to impose their will on the boards can’t waver, as their bench is woefully thin without Khris Middleton. Only Jevon Carter, Pat Connaughton, and Grayson Allen play off the bench for them, and their wing depth looks quite shaky against a team loaded with two-way killers. Of course, they have home-court advantage now and also the best player in the series, so they should feel happy as the series heads to Wisconsin. But if the Celtics lock in like Brown did on Tuesday, they don’t have any easy answers.