MIAMI — Style points are worthless in the NBA playoffs.
Win pretty, win ugly. All that matters is the W.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Boston Celtics withstood a weak first half, prevailed in the second half and emerged with a 93-80 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday.
With a 3-2 straight lead, the Celtics are in best position to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
“We talked about it. We just went to Milwaukee and won a very big Game 6. So you know it’s possible,” Tatum said, referring to the final round when the Celtics won in Milwaukee and then at home in Game 7. “Like us I came tonight with an attitude that it’s a game you absolutely have to win, that we have to take that with us and go into Friday like we lost 3-2.
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While it wasn’t always nice against a resilient Miami Heat team that knows how to make basketball difficult for opponents, Tatum and Brown are overkill.
Who knows what this series would be like if both teams, especially the Heat, were healthier. Tyler Herro missed his second game in a row, two of the Heat’s best players — Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry — aren’t 100% and Miami can’t muster enough offense.
Boston’s two best players – Tatum and Brown – may not be 100% fit, but they are healthy enough.
After a tough first half for both players on Wednesday — a combined 3-or-16 with six turnovers — Brown had 19 second-half points, 13 in the third quarter. Tatum had 18 in the second half.
Tatum finished the game with 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and Brown had a game high with 25 points.
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“JT and JB did it, both guys,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “Like I said, it was easy to take care of the basketball, the focus of this whole series, and narrow it down to one shot. … As I always say, we rely on the defensive end (and) know our offense to pick up at some point. If we get the stops to get out and run, we’re kind of a lethal team on both ends.
Brown and Tatum now face the biggest game of their careers. For young players (Brown is 25, Tatum is 24) they have considerable playoff experience. This is Brown’s fourth Conference Finals appearance in six seasons and Tatum’s third in five seasons.
“Having experience and learning from it is definitely an advantage,” Brown said.
They were about to enter the final. In 2018, Boston held a 3-2 series lead against Cleveland and LeBron James only to drop the final two games of the series. The Heat outlasted the Celtics in six games in the bubble in the 2020 Conference Finals.
“I’m much better, JB is. We’re just older,” Tatum said. “And we’ve been through those hard times.”
From the outside, Tatum and Brown are low-maintenance players. Tatum is a rising superstar and was named to the All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career on Tuesday. Brown is a one-time All-Star who is on the verge of becoming a regular at this event. For a player who scores 23.6 points per game, it’s unheralded.
Maybe that’s why the partnership works even when there are contradictions.
“My teammate for five years,” said Tatum. “I watched a lot of film together. Talked a lot throughout the game. I knew he had it going. Kind of getting the ball up, things like that, trying to find it, finding the hot hand so he can score , makes the right game. We’ve gotten so much better at that over the last five years.”
Brown said: “We always talk to each other and encourage each other. We know what we are capable of. Sometimes it’s more so mental that we try to overcome the adversity, or sometimes we think a little too much.
“We just have to get out there and play basketball. We feel like there aren’t many people who can play basketball with both of us. If he starts, if I start, we know we’re going to be in a good place to win.”
On Friday there will be rocking in the TD Garden. Brown and Tatum put the Celtics in a good position to win a conference championship.
It’s a fine line to embrace the greatness of the moment and not let it overwhelm you.
“This is a big game for us,” Brown said. “At the same time, you know, just breathe, relax. Sometimes it can be a little too tense. We know how important these moments are. But just come out and play our game and we’ll be fine.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZIllgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown nearing NBA Finals