Celtics are mentally tough enough to handle LeBron’s rebound, says ESPN’s Mike Breen

by | May 15, 2018 | Celtics, Dirty Water Sports

Over the course of his 26-year NBA broadcasting career, play-by-play man Mike Breen remembers many big moments that he witnessed on the court. But his memory might not be as sharp as LeBron James who now famously, almost perfectly recounted the Celtics quick 7-0 run at the start of the fourth quarter to essentially bury the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1.

“LeBron’s recall is off the charts,” said Breen, who spoke to us by phone and will be calling Game 2 on ESPN tonight. “But that stretch showed how the Celtics are a different team in how they respond to that type of comeback. A lot of teams would start to worry, would start to fold when you cut that big lead in half and the momentum has shifted. But nothing seems to faze these guys. Their mental toughness is as impressive as their physical skills and their physical toughness.”

No one is going to forget LeBron’s lackluster performance in Game 1, but the Cavs superstar’s track record shows that he’ll turn his game around tonight.

“It would be silly to doubt that he’ll have one of those magnificent games Tuesday night,” Breen said of James. “Whether or not it results in a win, that’s another story. But his ability to bounce back after poor performances, both individual-wise, which are few obviously, and team-wise… what he did in Game 7 against the Pacers — they got blown out in Indiana by 34 points — and then he comes back in Game 7 and throws up another one of those epic games. He’ll be ready. The question is, will his teammates be able to jump along with him? He’s not going to beat the Celtics by himself. He needs to have a lot of help.”

Breen expects TD Garden will see a different game plan from LeBron in Game 2. “He’s going to spend a lot more time down in the post, whether it’s in the post, whether it’s taking it to the basket, and not settling,” said Breen. “He just didn’t have that same bulldozer mentality that we’ve seen from him and a lot of that credit goes to the Celtics. Clearly the Celtics game plan was to send a second defender out at all times and, and try and stop him before he started the attack because once he starts going down hill, it’s almost impossible to stop him. He’ll figure out a way to get his shot attempts in Game 2. He’ll figure out a way to get to the free throw line because he usually does.”

While the world expects LeBron to bounce back as usual, the Celtics defense he’s up against now may be the toughest he’s ever faced. “Because of their youth — whether you’re talking about Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier or Marcus Smart or Jayson Tatum — these guys are young and with that they have so much energy that they can play at a high level in terms of tenacity longer than some of the older teams who are just as good defensively,” said Breen. “There might be some teams that play just as hard, but in terms of this year, the type of tenacity that they bring on a consistent basis from opening tip to end of the game is as good as there is in the league.”

Oakland, CA – December 25, 2015 – Oracle Arena: Mike Breen prior to the 2015 NBA Christmas Day game
(Photo by Peter DaSilva / ESPN Images)

Breen, who raves about the teamwork of his own longtime broadcast crew of Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Doris Burke and everyone else from the producers to the graphics staff, sees two key factors that have made the Celtics so in synch with each other in such a short period of time.

“It’s pretty incredible, the chemistry they have in such a short period,” Breen said. “They’re all on one string when you consider only four guys returned. There were two factors. No. 1, they’ve got an exceptional coach who is just in the beginning of his NBA coaching career, but he’s already proven that he has a chance to be one of the great coaches despite the fact that he feels he’s getting way too much credit. He’s got this humility about him.

“No. 2, besides Brad Stevens, with a player like Al Horford, you can’t measure his impact and what he means to a team just looking at his statistics. Horford might be the poster player for that because his overall demeanor, his professionalism, his team-first attitude, a guy who’s willing to help younger players. I think to have a veteran like that who’s got such a high basketball IQ really helped get these guys acclimated to the new team and to the culture that Stevens is trying to put it in. Those are two of the biggest reasons why this team has meshed so quickly.”

While the story of the Celtics youth has been in the spotlight all season, it’s their talent that people would be talking about if it weren’t for a couple of well-publicized missing pieces.

“The only reason the Celtics are not being talked about as being more talented is because they’re missing two extremely talented players [Hayward and Irving],” Breen said. “But you look at the roster that they have and whether you’re talking about Tatum or Brown or Rozier, these three are unbelievably talented players. They’re just ahead of the pace that everybody seems to put on young players. We almost think like there’s a process they have to go through before they become stars, ‘Oh, you have to grow.’ There’s this normal growth of a player but some of these players aren’t normal. They are so above normal that their growth is quicker. And I think we’re seeing that from Tatum and Brown. Everybody was surprised at how quickly they become this good, including myself and probably including Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, but that doesn’t mean that their growth can’t be quicker than others because they have taken just quantum leaps from the beginning of this season to where they’re playing at now.”

While the future looks bright in Boston for years to come, Breen says they have to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them now because things can change in a hurry.

“I don’t envy Danny Ainge because they’re going to have salary cap decisions to make down the road,” said Breen. “But that’s why you can never say about a team: ‘Look how young they are, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with and have a chance to be in the finals for the next five or six years.’ You just don’t know because managing the salary cap, managing egos, and certainly making sure guys are healthy comes into play. You can’t take for granted when you have a chance to make a run because who knows down the line how many of these guys they’re going to be able to keep. When a young player starts and is getting better and better and wants to be The Guy, maybe he can’t do it on this team so he wants to go to another team [see Irving, Kyrie]. It’s something that all these teams wrestle with having these terrifically talented young teams.”

With Irving and Hayward expected back in the starting lineup next season, it will be a new dynamic for all the players involved.

“I don’t see their roles changing but everybody’s going to have to sacrifice a little bit more.” Breen said. “It’s probably going to be fewer minutes for a lot of guys that played this year. It’s certainly going to be fewer shot attempts but that’s one of the keys for this Celtics team is how unselfish they are in terms of not worrying about stats, it’s a different hero every night.

“It was like that when, when Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen got together. Pierce didn’t care if he scored as long as they won, there’d be other nights when he just goes out and scores 34 and I think this Celtics team has the same feeling about them and that’s going to have to be the case next year because, it’s going to be a matter of everybody has to sacrifice, they’re going to have so much depth that’s going to be downright scary for opponents.”

Over in the Western Conference Finals, it’s the Warriors that look scary. If Kevin Durant & Co. continue to play like they did Monday night and the LeBron finds a way to win again, Breen could be calling a Warriors-Cavaliers final for the fourth straight year.

“I’ve learned long ago you, you just let the chips fall where they may and you find the great storylines in each matchup,” the 56-year-old Breen said of the possibility. “Since we’ve done so many Golden State-Cleveland games, when I go into Cleveland, some fans think you’re rooting for Golden State. And then when you go back to Oakland, the Warriors fans are saying, ‘Oh, you just love LeBron and the Cavs, you want them to win.’ So it’s an annual joke between all of us. Sometimes the fans think that we’re against them and that that’s just a product of how passionate fans are about their own team.”

In addition to calling the Finals for the 13th year, Breen is also the longtime voice of the New York Knicks on the MSG Network. “I love them both,” Breen said when asked to compare the two jobs. “I love not having any so-called rooting interest when I’m doing a national game. When I’m doing Knick games, and I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was a kid in New York — I found a way to just call the game objectively. But as any home team announcer will tell you — and especially if it’s from your hometown and the team that you rooted for as a kid — there’s just something special about the journey of being there from training camp and watching how the team comes together and watching the ups and downs throughout the course of a season and obviously because you’re around the team so much, you know the players and the coaches more so you have a better understanding of their personalities and the dynamics. It’s a different broadcast, but I find both equally enjoyable.”

While Breen was at Fordham beginning his broadcasting career, he began using “BANG!” as his signature call on a big basket. As longtime Celtics fans know, “BANG!” was also part of legendary Celtics radio broadcaster Johnny Most’s repertoire.

“Any play-by-play guy who’s done the NBA is aware of the legend of Johnny Most, but back in the day when you couldn’t listen to games on the internet, you would just hear samples,” Breen said. “So I knew of his style. I knew that great raspy voice, but I never heard him use the word ‘Bang’. And then when I started doing it, I think during a Celtics playoff run 15, 16 years ago, Johnny’s son who was friends with Howie Singer who is the director of the Knicks telecast mentioned to me that his dad used to use the word ‘Bang” and I never realized it. So I think on one telecast, I mentioned it in honor of Johnny. I mentioned that to pay respect to him, but I’d never heard a tape of him saying it.

“Johnny was still doing the games when I started doing Knicks radio and I remember seeing him at the old Boston Garden and I was petrified. I was so intimidated and petrified to go up and say hello to him. Eventually I did. He was a legend.”

Surly Breen will be belting out “BANG!” tonight and Johnny Most will be high above courtside hoping the basket comes out of the hand of Jaylen Brown and not LeBron James.