Celtics, after easy elimination of Heat, eager to keep graduating in NBA playoffs

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BOSTON — Jaylen Brown paused for just a moment.

The Boston Celtics wing has acknowledged how much motivation he took from last season’s loss to the Miami Heat. He has detailed exactly how that disappointment powered him to improve. But after dispatching the Heat in five games, albeit without All-Star Jimmy Butler, Brown said he took nothing extra from beating that specific opponent in the first round.

“I think it’s all business,” Brown said Wednesday after his team closed out the first round with a 118-84 Game 5 win. “Let’s keep it professional. There is a lot of history between (us) back and forth. It didn’t matter who it was, we just needed to get the job done.”

Maybe, like Brown said, Boston’s opponent doesn’t matter. Maybe the Celtics will be good enough to determine their fate regardless of who they play. At the very least, with the strength of their roster, they will have a chance to do something special as long as they live up to their vast potential every night. Heading into the first round, they knew they would have a significant talent advantage against a Heat squad missing two starters, including Butler, who typically builds on the legend of “Playoff Jimmy” this time of year. But even as colossal favorites, the Celtics didn’t want to rely primarily on talent. Physicality, Joe Mazzulla stressed from the start, would be the key to this series. Jayson Tatum said the Celtics needed to be honest with themselves.

“What are teams — what’s their message, what’s their game plan to beat us?” Tatum said. “And it’s to pick up the pace, the pressure, be more physical, crash the glass, do all the intangible things. So we know that.”

Extrapolating from Tatum’s explanation, the Celtics know the scouting report on them. That they could fold in key moments. That they might not be able to overcome the toughest defenses. That, in the past, they have never been able to sustain competent offense deep in the playoffs. Keep testing them, teams think, and eventually, they will come apart. The Celtics have been different this season, of course — and not just because of Kristaps Porziņģis, whose calf strain will be re-evaluated in another week. The Celtics have unveiled a new layer of poise. They’ve found a new level of consistency while going through the regular season without experiencing three straight losses.

But regular-season success couldn’t erase the old question marks. They still exist. At least in the playoffs, they do. At least this time of year they do. And the matchup against the Heat only served as a reminder. The Celtics couldn’t have silenced all their critics during the first round. They certainly couldn’t have against such a short-handed Miami roster. But, according to Tatum, the Celtics had that scouting report in mind throughout the series anyway.

“Why don’t we flip the script and be the tougher team?” Tatum said. “Why don’t we crash the glass more? Why don’t we pick up the pressure on defense while still being the talented team that we are? It’ll be tough to beat us.”

It looked that way during the first round. Outside of a Game 2 loss, during which they allowed Miami to make 23 3-pointers on 53.5 percent shooting from behind the arc, the Celtics controlled the rest of the series with ease. They led for all but one minute of their four wins, which were all by at least 14 points. The Celtics dominated Game 5 from the start. Brown, Tatum and Derrick White combined to outscore Miami 32-23 during the first quarter. As a team, Boston shot 59 percent from the field during the first half while building the lead to as many as 30 points.

Minutes into the game, Jrue Holiday chased a loose ball into the corner. After he tossed it back over his head, hoping it would find a teammate, the ball hung in the air for a while. Two Heat players were nearby, but Brown reached the ball first. He ripped it away from Nikola Jović, then drove past Bam Adebayo for a left-handed layup.

Though the Heat should have been more desperate, the Celtics rose to the challenge of the closeout game. They gave up just two offensive rebounds. They held Miami to just three made 3-pointers. They never gave the Heat any reason to hope.

“I thought the players brought a high level of maturity to the details,” Mazzulla said. “And then also understanding the theme of the series was physicality and having to win the shot margin. So it was the staff, and it was the guys buying into that.”

As outmanned as Miami was by the end of the series, with Jaime Jaquez Jr. joining Butler and Terry Rozier on the injury report, the Celtics had a healthy respect for the Heat. Tatum said he wanted to play Miami in the first round partly because he didn’t want his team to relax like it did against the Atlanta Hawks, last season’s first-round opponent. Against the Heat, he knew the Celtics would come to play.

“Knowing the history with Miami and how hard they play, how well-coached they are, that for a first-round matchup, regardless of the seed, we were going to have to be ready to play and be ready to fight,” Tatum said.

That’s what he wanted. With Erik Spoelstra in charge, the Heat pose challenges regardless of which players suit up for them.

“They do a little bit of everything,” Brown said. “Physically, mentally, they try to mess with you, make you hesitate, make you think. They’re good at that. Give credit to their coaching staff over there. They did a bunch of different things. They put (Tyler) Herro on me, they tried to double at the rim late. They make you want to hesitate and play a little zone. They do a little bit of everything. So it’s a combination of physically and mentally just graduating, and I feel like we executed down the stretch, and now we’re advancing to the next round.”

Brown failed to seize his opportunity to close out the Heat at TD Garden during last season’s Eastern Conference finals. After Tatum sprained an ankle during the opening minute of Game 7, the Celtics needed Brown to deliver, but he fell shy of the moment. He finished with just 19 points on 23 shot attempts. He committed eight turnovers compared to five assists. He felt like he let down his team.

That history gave more significance to his start on Wednesday. The Celtics ran the offense through Brown early. He scored two of their first three baskets; the other one came after he created an advantage by drawing a double-team and finding Holiday. Throughout the first quarter, Brown showcased a mixture of aggression and poise. When the Heat defense collapsed on him, he found an open teammate. When he had a sliver of space, he burst through it for his own shot attempt. He gave the Celtics an early push. They never slowed down from there.

The series didn’t exactly provide retribution for the Celtics after last season’s Eastern Conference finals loss. They couldn’t achieve that with Butler sidelined for all five games. Still, it was the type of start they wanted to the playoffs: a businesslike, tough-minded one. That’s why Brown chose the term “graduating” in his description of the win.

“I think we still have tests to go through throughout this playoffs, especially now with KP being out,” Brown said. “But I think we’re up to the challenge. I think I’m up to the challenge. And I’m excited about that. So we’re graduating. We haven’t graduated yet.”

The playoffs will get more difficult. The Celtics will face either Cleveland or Orlando in the second round. Porziņģis is expected to miss at least the start of that series. His team becomes more vulnerable without him, but the Celtics’ challenge will still be the same. They need to beat the old scouting report. They need to prove they can be tough enough, both physically and mentally, all the time.

“I think the world we live in is it’s got to be something wrong with every team,” Tatum said. “That’s what they like to say. And you can see how talented we are. I think it’s lazy or easy to say that teams can out-tough us, right? And I never understood that. Like, what’s the definition of tough? Like, having the louder guys on your team? That s— don’t make you tough. Everybody has their own definition of what toughness is. It’s playing the right way, showing up every day to do your job without complaining. I think that’s being tough.”

No problem so far.

(Photo of Boston’s Jayson Tatum going to the basket past Bam Adebayo and Caleb Martin: Winslow Townson / USA Today)

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