NEW YORK — With the Brooklyn Nets relentlessly and sometimes aimlessly chasing the Celtics, Jayson Tatum tried forcing matters late in the third quarter and picked up an offensive foul. He was angry about a previous call and screamed at officials to make things even. He then exited the floor, shoved Brooklyn’s Bruce Brown to the side, and stormed to the end of the bench.
It was a pivotal moment for the Celtics’ unquestioned leader and most talented player. Either he responds with better basketball, more poise on the floor, and limited mistakes or the Celtics could get passed by a flawed and desperate team.
Tatum took a 12-second break and then returned to the game as the Celtics extended their lead with 8 points in 48 seconds.
When the fourth quarter arrived, Tatum again proved he was the best player on the floor, even with Kevin Durant (his one-time idol) and Kyrie Irving (his former mentor) on the floor, fiercely trying to mount a rally but realizing they were unable, overmatched and undermanned.
Tatum scored 14 points in the final period, and close buddy Jaylen Brown added 9, as the Celtics beat the Nets again, 109-103, ending all debate about which is the better team and who is the superior duo in the series.
“For the most part, I’m a laid back, calm, quiet, reserved person but when I get between those lines, I care,” he said afterward. “It means a lot to me. Sometimes my emotions get the best of me but I’m very passionate about what I do.
“Those 12 seconds on the bench calmed me down a little bit and I refocused back on the game.”
It was one of those nights where Tatum showed his best — career-high six steals, six assists, clutch shooting — but also some of his faults — six turnovers and too much complaining to officials. But when the Celtics needed him at his best, he was.
Tatum has played a brilliant defensive series, meeting Durant or Irving at the top of the key and using his length to cause problems. The Celtics have implored Tatum to become more of a defensive presence for years, and Udoka has finally unleashed that beast.
When Tatum is a plus-defender, he doesn’t necessarily need to be such a prolific scorer. He took 29 shots for his 39 points. He struggled from the 3-point line but drained two when it counted.
The organization’s goal since it passed on Markelle Fultz and drafted Tatum in 2017 was to turn this polished offensive player into a complete player who can dominate both sides of the ball. Tatum has not only worked feverishly on his defense in recent years but also on his conditioning and muscle mass. He is not even physically recognizable compared to his rookie year.
“It’s something I’ve gotten better at as I’ve gotten older,” Tatum said of his progressing emphasis on defense. “As my body has developed from my first year until now. I’ve gotten stronger. Obviously I’ve gotten better defensively but especially my first year when Brad [Stevens], part of the way to get on the floor was playing defense. I’ve always known that and as I’ve gotten older, my game’s progressed, just wanted to be as best as I can as a complete player. Not a lot of people do it, so I just wanted to separate myself.”
The Nets again shot 50.6 percent but that meant little to Udoka. It was who was shooting: Durant and Irving combined to go 12-for-29 shooting, including just five combined shot attempts in the final period.
Dorchester native Bruce Brown took more shots (19) than Durant (11) and Irving (17), and he led the Nets with 26 points. The Celtics even withstood a drastic measure by overwhelmed coach Steve Nash to use former All-Star and now cheerleader Blake Griffin for the first time in three weeks.
His nearly eight-minute stint resulted in 8 points but a minus-4 as the Celtics hunted the aging player on every offensive possession. Each move Nash makes, and there haven’t been many, Udoka counters with a better one.
It was obvious in the first two games the Celtics had better depth than the Nets. But there was still the belief that Durant and Irving were a better pair than their younger counterparts in Brown and Tatum. That competition appears over, too, just like this series is nearly done.
Udoka has turned Tatum and Brown into impactful defenders more consistently. Tatum is no longer the score first, score second player who feels he has to carry his team by making difficult shots. It’s a maturity that has occurred expeditiously over the past year and the better he defends, the better the Celtics are.
Boston is an elite defense, holding Durant to 22 points per game and Irving to 13 points in the past two games of this series. Tatum has become one of the central figures of that development.
“Durant only shooting three threes and Irving going 0 for 7 on a lot of tough, contested ones, that kind of tells the story of how we’re defending,” Udoka said. “I talk about our team as a collective unit being the No. 1 defensive team and that takes everyone to buy in and [Tatum] doesn’t always get the credit for that because of his scoring prowess. He’s another guy that allows us to be who we are defensively and taking the challenge against Durant. Tremendous job in this series but he’s been that all year.”