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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: After years of pain and learning, the Celtics have gotten it right

Boston's Jrue Holiday goes to the basket against Dallas during Game 2 of the NBA Finals at TD Garden.   (Tribune News Service)
By Jerry Brewer Washington Post

BOSTON – Jaylen Brown wasn’t their best player. Neither was Jayson Tatum. On Sunday night, as the Boston Celtics took a 2-0 series lead, it was Jrue Holiday’s turn to be the alpha star.

It was also his turn not to care about receiving credit.

“I’m a utility guy,” Holiday said after scoring 26 points and hounding the Dallas Mavericks on defense during a 105-98 victory in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at TD Garden. “I’ll do whatever. I’m here to win.”

After eight long and treacherous years of championship contention, it seems like the entire Celtics team finally is here to win. On such a balanced squad, with six legitimate threats to score 20 points on any given night, Brown and Tatum don’t need to dominate all the time. Their greatness is determined by their willingness to flow with the action, to read the game and adjust on demand. They’re mature enough to handle the task now.

On Saturday, Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd attempted to needle them and drive a wedge by declaring Brown the team’s best player. Their response was more symbolic than deliberate. It’s not like Tatum and Brown intended to combine for 19 assists. It’s not like they aimed to prove a point. They just played unselfish basketball. It was more than enough.

“I think that we responded really well,” Tatum said.

It wasn’t a flawless effort, and that may have been the best part. The Celtics shot a woeful 10 for 39 on 3-pointers, turning their offense – which set a regular season efficiency record – into a disjointed mess. So they won with character, chemistry and defense. They won the kind of game that they would have lost earlier in the playoffs.

Tatum had an adventurous night, recovering from a 6-for-22 shooting performance by leading the team with 12 assists and showing up on the defensive end. Despite his struggles from the field, Tatum played a complete game. It was indicative of the way every player attacked this game. They kept sharing the ball, even though they weren’t effective driving and kicking. They moved without the ball. Holiday lived at the rim, making all nine of his attempts in the paint and 11 of 14 field goals overall. On many occasions, Tatum found Holiday as he cut to the basket.

The Celtics finished with 29 assists on 38 made field goals, a stunning number for a team that couldn’t make open shots. It’s a striking contrast to the Mavericks, who have been relegated to Luka Doncic playing savior because Kyrie Irving and their complementary players are struggling.

When asked about Tatum’s game, Coach Joe Mazzulla first referred to the whole team.

“That should have been the first question, is the ability of everybody on our team to do different things that lead to winning,” Mazzulla said. “I’m really tired of hearing about one guy or this guy or that guy and everybody trying to make it out to be anything other than Celtic basketball. Everybody that stepped on that court made winning plays on both ends of the floor, is the most important thing.”

Mazzulla comes across as single-minded and cantankerous, but he has done a fabulous job with this team. Yet again, the Celtics have reinvented themselves. During this window of contention, the Celtics have had three head coaches and rearranged the furniture around Brown and Tatum multiple times. For all the winning they’ve done, this is, by far, their best team. The offseason trades for Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis have made Brad Stevens, their former coach turned president of basketball operations, look like a genius. Now, the Celtics have a core of high-level role players – Holiday, Porzingis, Derrick White and Al Horford – whose skills complement their two perennial all-stars.

“At the end of the day, this is their team,” Holiday said of Brown and Tatum. “The pressure that they have on themselves to execute and to be great is a little bit different than my pressure. And, again, I’ve always been honest about that and how they always handle themselves has been something that’s been so honorable.”

Brown has been consistently good on both ends of the floor in the first two games. He’s an athletic menace that the Mavericks cannot match. On the other hand, Tatum has had to go deep into his toolbox to make an impact.

With soft-spoken candor, Tatum acknowledged his many bricks the past two games. He’s 12 for 38 from the field.

“Obviously, I need to shoot better,” he said. “Golly.”

If he has another bad shooting night, I’m afraid he’ll resurrect the word jeepers.

Tatum made the plays he could. He’s still adjusting to the way the Mavericks are loading up on him as he drives, but his playmaking could loosen up the defense as the series progresses. Tatum just wants to win. In the past, he has put up monster postseason numbers and failed to secure a ring. He has also endured series in which his turnovers hampered the team. He’s a more well-rounded player because of those experiences.

“I’ve been here before and we didn’t win, and it’s just like, you know, we’re so close to what we’re trying to accomplish, why would I let my ego or my need to score all the points get in the way of that?” Tatum said. “If I need to have 16 potential assists every single night, and that’s what puts us in the best position to win and it doesn’t mean I’m the leading scorer, by all means, if that gives us the best chance to win, sign me up.”

Tatum and Brown aren’t perfect, but they are committed. And after years of roster alterations, the Celtics finally have the right supporting cast around them.

In this free-flowing, positionless NBA, superstars need to be elite playmakers. The tunnel-vision scorer is harder to build around because pass-first point guards are nearly as extinct as traditional big men. Most MVP candidates function as multidimensional offensive engines. They are shot makers and shot creators. And that has been a problem with Tatum and Brown. Most of the time, they play like a duo from a couple of decades ago, a duo that needs a Rajon Rondo or Andre Miller to set the table. As the Celtics have chased championship No. 18 for much of the past decade, Tatum and Brown have experienced the pain of learning on the job.

With Holiday and White, they may have enough guard play. They’re combo guards who specialize on defense but can stabilize an offense with their decision-making and scoring. The Celtics don’t have to put the ball in their hands, but they can. And in the fourth quarter Sunday, both kept coming up with defensive gems to help Boston close the game, most notably White’s chase-down block of Dallas forward P.J. Washington.

“That was sick,” Mazzulla said.

The Celtics can win in so many ways. Golly.