Jayson Tatum, Brown paint Cleveland green with strong inside play


“Set the tone from the top down and just hold myself accountable, making sure my defense is right, and I think everybody else just followed suit.”

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum flexes after slamming one home during a dominant third quarter for the visitors, sending them on their way to a Game 3 victory in Cleveland Saturday night.

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CLEVELAND — The battle for the paint is typically won by big men on the inside, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday night in the Celtics’ 106-93 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Kristaps Porzingis remained out with a calf strain. Al Horford looked as though his increased minutes filling in for Porzingis were taking a toll on him. Luke Kornet was limited to 2 points and one rebound in eight minutes. Xavier Tillman and Neemias Queta did not play.

Despite getting just 4 points and eight rebounds from their bigs, Boston owned the paint Saturday night because Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown decided it was theirs to control.

The star duo grabbed half of the Celtics’ 44 rebounds. They scored 34 of Boston’s 50 points in the paint. They realized that standing around and failing to crash the boards the way they did in Game 2 was unacceptable.

For Brown, there was an emphasis on reminding his teammates about who they are. TV cameras captured a brief example of this when Brown walked over to Tatum to slap hands and offer some encouragement.

“There we go. Come on Big Deuce,” Brown said as Tatum nodded. “Tell them to stop playing with you. ‘I’m Big Deuce. I’m Big Deuce.’ Come on.”

The recipe was simple, Brown said. The Celtics needed to be held accountable for their effort and the leadership had to come from within. They needed to handle their defensive assignments, box out, and be aggressive.

“Just talk to them, watch film, hold each other accountable and just speak life into everybody,” Brown said. “Set the tone from the top down and just hold myself accountable, making sure my defense is right, and I think everybody else just followed suit.”

Tatum challenged the team at halftime. They were up by 9, but Tatum wanted to play as though they were down by nine. The Celtics held the Cavaliers scoreless for the first 3:41 of the second half, launching a 14-0 run that paved the way to victory.

“We’ve had a tendency in the past to relax coming out of halftime. We’re usually winning coming out of halftime,” Tatum said. “So, I just challenged the group. Can we come out like our back is against the wall? Can we make them call the first timeout? Can we come out like we’re down nine?

“The group responded, and we started that third quarter off very well.”

Tatum’s and Brown’s play on the inside, along with a more concerted effort on the boards from Jrue Holiday (eight rebounds) and Derrick White (three), made up for the Celtics’ lack of production from their big men.

Al Horford bore the brunt of the workload down low, playing a postseason-high 39 minutes. He missed all six of his 3-point attempts and made his only basket early in the second quarter on an offensive rebound tip-in.

Despite the rough shooting night, Horford was able to eat up minutes and complement Tatum and Brown on the glass with seven rebounds. Horford, who turns 38 next month, is averaging 31.7 minutes per game during this series with Porzingis out, up from 26.8 during the regular season.

“We put a lot on Al,” Holiday said. “Just protecting the paint, anchoring this on the defensive end and then knowing that he’s going to get some shots because they kind of leave him open — especially with Mobley kind of dropping into the paint.

“But Al is Al. He’s one of the most reliable players I’ve ever played with, and you know he’s going to come through for you. We put a lot on Al, but he’s built for it.”

There’s no stopping Celtics guard Jaylen Brown driving hard to the hoop, as Cleveland’s Darius Garland (left) painfully discovered during the third quarter of Saturday’s Game 3 victory.

One of the main reasons Cleveland dominated the paint in Game 2 was that Donovan Mitchell penetrated the Celtics’ defense at will and distributed the ball to teammates for inside looks. He was also able to push the ball up the floor effectively and lead several fast-break buckets with his passing.

MItchell had eight assists in Game 2, but was held to three in Game 3. More of the scoring burden fell on Mitchell Saturday, and he responded with a scorching-hot first half in which he went 6 for 8 from three.

In the second half, however, he was 4 for 10 shooting in the second half, and the Celtics won the fast-break scoring battle. Holiday felt that fatigue was a factor. Mitchell scored 23 of his 33 points in the first half.

“I feel like he was a little gassed,” Holiday said. “It’s hard, what he’s doing. What he’s doing is elite, putting up that many points and so efficiently.

“We’re making it tough on him. If it’s not me, it’s D-White. If it’s not D-White, it’s JB. We’ve got Al protecting the paint and JT protecting the paint. It’s definitely a team effort, but I think to do it how he’s doing it is hard.”