When you, the Celtics fan, woke up Thursday morning in a happy haze after a second straight victory over the Brooklyn Nets further confirmed that anything really is possible this postseason, who was the first player that came to mind for his hardwood heroics in the come-from-behind 114-107 win?
Maybe it was Grant Williams, who almost went Full Wedman (11 for 11 in Game 1 of the ‘85 Finals), scoring 17 points on a perfect shooting night (4 for 4 from the field, 3 for 3 from three, 6 for 6 from the stripe).
Or maybe it was Payton Pritchard, who scored 10 points in 15 minutes and was deployed expertly in the second half by coach Ime Udoka as a floor spacer to make the Nets work harder than some of them desired on defense.
And if you have a soft spot for the perpetually unsung, maybe Daniel Theis’s performance lingered in your mind overnight after he shot 7 of 9 from the field for 15 points, including a third-quarter jumper that pulled the Celtics even at 77-77, the first time they were tied since the opening tip.
It was a fine night for the “you don’t have to be a star, baby, to be in my show” brigade, and of course, the spectacular fourth-quarter performance of Jaylen Brown — a star, sure, but not quite an NBA A-lister — will not escape the mind anytime soon, either.
But when you’re replaying this one in your mind all day, don’t forget to pause and marvel at what the Celtics’ single fully-formed superstar did too.
Oh, this was not Jayson Tatum’s best scoring game (he finished with 19 points on 5-for-16 shooting). There were moments when the ball stalled in his possession, and there were moments when he couldn’t control his frustration with the officials. He was not flawless or especially efficient.
Game 2 was not the best playoff performance of Tatum’s career. Not even close. But it might have been the most reassuring, and in its own way, one of his most impressive.
Tatum simply was everything the Celtics needed him to be, particularly when they needed him the most. He did what a true superstar is supposed to do on a night when frustrations begin to mount from the opening tip and the usual bag of tricks isn’t working.
A superstar finds a way, picks his spots, cooks up clever solutions to what the defense is throwing at him, involves his teammates, and inevitably breaks through like a lightning bolt in the victorious end. That was Jayson Tatum, superstar, Wednesday night.
Tatum didn’t score his first points until hitting a pair of free throws midway through the first quarter after Seth Curry pinned his arm on a breakaway, committing a flagrant foul. He didn’t have a field goal until the closing moments of the first half, when he scored 5 straight points on a dunk and a 3-pointer, helping the Celtics cut a 17-point deficit with a little over two minutes remaining to a manageable 10 (65-55) at halftime.
But even as he was struggling to capitalize on his own shots — the Nets swarmed him like angry hornets when he got into the paint — he created great looks over and over again for his teammates.
“Their focus is obviously heavily shifted toward Jayson and taking him out, you can see the double teams,” said Udoka. “Anytime he has an [isolation], they’re loading up and flooding across the lane, so he’s a willing passer with his 10 assists tonight.
“At times it’s going to be like that. We told him, ‘If they’re going to attack you like that, you can be the decoy and get everyone else going.’ ”
The Celtics’ ball movement was stagnant early. (As excellent as he was late, Brown may have set a franchise record for useless between-the-legs dribbles in the first half.) But Tatum’s discipline and trust in the offensive system eventually helped unlock the share-the-ball style that has been such a joy to watch the last three-plus months.
Tatum played the initiator on a Williams three with 38.3 seconds left in the first quarter, driving and passing to Pritchard, who swung it quickly to Al Horford, who redirected to Williams in the corner. And Tatum got the assist himself on the next possession, finding Williams for a second straight three with 20.1 seconds left, cutting the Nets’ early lead to 33-24.
Tatum had five assists in the first half, and would add five more in the second. He also contributed to the stifling defensive effort against Nets superstar Kevin Durant, who shot just 4 of 17 from the field. But when the game was in the balance in the fourth quarter, all of Tatum’s powers were fully charged.
He continued to dish out deft passes, including a kick-out to Brown at the nine-minute mark for a three that cut the Nets’ lead to 92-90. Then, as the Celtics were seizing control a few minutes later, he delivered a gorgeous look to a cutting Marcus Smart with a little over four minutes left that led to a pair of free throws and a 101-94 Celtics lead.
Then he went into shutdown closer mode, scoring 7 straight Celtics points in a little over a minute, and he did so in a variety of ways. He hit a pair of free throws after a Kyrie foul (103-96), drove and hit a nifty runner to beat the shot clock (105-96), then drilled a dagger three, again late in the shot clock (108-96), to cap a 21-4 Celtics run.
Tatum’s offense opened up late in part because he was so willing to kick the ball out and find the likes of Williams and Pritchard for open looks. There’s no chance he would have taken this approach last season, and maybe not even three months ago.
But Jayson Tatum has figured out that making others better makes him better, and he plays this way now even when the temptation to try to do too much must be hard to resist. He has aced the last lesson in the leap from scoring star to superstar, and man, is it ever a pleasure to watch.