C’s return to Finals ‘a different team,’ says Brown

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INDIANAPOLIS — Thanks to some late heroics from Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics have advanced to the NBA Finals for a second time in three years.

Brown, who finished with 29 points, had a block on Andrew Nembhard and then hit Derrick White for the game-winning 3-pointer inside the final minute — a shot that gave Boston its first lead since the opening moments of the second half.

It ended up being the difference in the Celtics’ 105-102 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, as Boston completed the sweep to reach the league’s championship round.

Brown was named the Larry Bird Eastern Conference finals MVP after averaging nearly 30 points on 51.7% shooting from the field in the series.

With the win, the Celtics ensured themselves a full 10 days off to rest up for the start of the NBA Finals, which will begin — regardless of what happens in the Western Conference finals, which could end as soon as Tuesday night with a Dallas Mavericks win — on June 6 at Boston’s TD Garden.

A final couple of minutes that featured a bunch of turnovers both ways was ultimately decided by Brown first blocking Nembhard and then kicking the ball out to White in the corner. From there, the Celtics escaped, as Nembhard missed a potential tying triple at the other end and, after a missed 3-pointer by Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday secured the offensive rebound to allow time to run out.

The White shot closed out a 20-8 run over the final few minutes of the game.

After making it to the Eastern Conference finals for a sixth time in eight seasons, Boston dispatched Indiana in the minimum number of games, continuing a rare run through the postseason for the Celtics. And while the run has included facing the Miami Heat without Jimmy Butler, the Cleveland Cavaliers without Jarrett Allen for the whole series and Donovan Mitchell for two games, and now the Pacers without Tyrese Haliburton for the final two-plus contests, Boston still went 12-2 and had several blowout victories along the way.

But, in keeping with how this entire series played out, Indiana made life as difficult on Boston as it could. Nembhard, coming off a 32-point, 9-assist performance in Game 3, lit up the scoreboard again in the first half, finishing with 16 points and 5 assists to keep Indiana within a point of the Celtics at the halftime break.

He then put Indiana back out in front to start the second half with a nice pass to Myles Turner for a 3-pointer on the opening possession of the third quarter, before the two of them connected for another Turner triple a minute later.

The lead would eventually balloon to Indiana’s biggest of the game at 68-62 with 8:57 to go in the third, when former Celtic Aaron Nesmith buried an elbow jumper to force a Joe Mazzulla timeout.

Boston wouldn’t tie the game again until the opening possession of the fourth quarter, when Brown buried a triple from the left wing to tie the game at 83 — only for T.J. McConnell, who spent these playoffs smack dab in the middle of most of the good things that happened for the Pacers, to bury three straight buckets to keep Indiana in front.

Then, during the ensuing timeout after McConnell’s barrage, referee Zach Zarba announced to the crowd here at Gainbridge Fieldhouse that Brown’s quarter-opening 3-pointer came after the shot clock expired, meaning Indiana had been given its biggest lead of the game at 89-82 with 10:13 remaining.

A short time later, Nembhard drove to the bucket and dropped in an and-one layup to give Indiana a 94-85 lead. On the next trip down the court, McConnell cut to the basket for a completely wide open layup, but missed it, keeping Indiana’s lead at 9 instead of expanding it to double-digits.

That was followed by Boston going on a 13-6 run to cut the lead all the way down to 100-98 on an and-one layup by Holiday with just under four minutes remaining, setting up the latest frenetic finish in a series that’s featured several of them.

And, just like the first three games, it was Boston that made just enough plays to escape — and, as a result, booked a trip back to the NBA Finals.

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