One loss from premature elimination, the Celtics faced rampant questions about their resolve, mental fortitude, and attitude. Jayson Tatum provided all the answers in a Game 4 last stand.
Celtic Pride has a pulse, and so does the Celtics’ season thanks to Tatum’s timely reminder of his megastar status with 25 of his 33 points coming in the second half as the Celtics pulled away from the Miami Heat with a 116-99 victory at the Kaseya Center Tuesday night.
Instead of the Heat breaking out the brooms, Tatum broke the cycle that saw the Celtics dig themselves a 3-0 deficit in these Eastern Conference finals. With his team listing, down 9 in the third quarter, Tatum acted as Boston’s basketball ballast, sparking an 18-0 run that flipped the scoreboard and the script. The Tatum Takeover started with consecutive triples as he provided 8 of the 18 points that kept alive dreams of Banner No. 18.
This was Tatum at his lead-by-example best. On a team that talks too much for its own good, he let his play do the talking. JT is never going to be a riveting, rah-rah orator. He’s never going to have the outward killer instinct of his idol, Kobe Bryant. He’s not going to exhibit Michael Jordan- or Larry Bird-level bravado. He’s a low-key, low-blood-pressure leader. That’s fine. It’s OK to be mellow, just don’t be ringless, like Carmelo.
Marcus Smart, the polar opposite of Tatum from a personality standpoint, said Tatum set the tone during a second-half timeout.
“It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to win this game,” Smart relayed. “We’ve just got to keep playing the right way, and then he came out and led by example.
“He got the block. He’s helping. He’s getting rebounds, and he’s making his shots, making the right plays. When you’ve got a guy like Jayson — and Jaylen [Brown] — leading the way by example, everybody else falls in line.”
That’s what happened as Tatum scored 14 third-quarter points while scoring or assisting on nine of Boston’s 14 baskets in a salvation quarter that saw the Green shoot 60.9 percent and outscore the Heat, 38-23.
No. 0 was the one who helped the three-for-all Green reclaim their actual identity, not the fake defensive one they’re lamenting losing. This team gets its life from the 3-point line. It’s their ambrosia. When those shots go down, the Celtics’ energy and focus on both ends go up.
They shot 7 of 12 from beyond the arc in the third quarter and 18 of 45 (40 percent) overall. Tatum (4 of 9 from three) was part of a quintet of Celtics who buried three or more treys.
The Celtics can bloviate about being more connected and having better commitment at the defensive end. That sounds good. But it’s no coincidence that dialed-in defense resurfaced after they got dialed in from distance offensively.
These Celtics thrive by or die by the three. They’re 30-6 this season when making 18 or more threes, and 37-2 when they shoot 40 percent or better.
So it wasn’t helpful that Tatum and Brown entered Game 4 a combined 7 for 40 from the 3-point line.
On a night in which he passed The Truth, Paul Pierce, for the most made threes by a Celtic in playoff history, Tatum also told the truth.
“Honestly, to start the third quarter, it could have went the other way,” said Tatum. “We gave up some threes. We turned the ball over. But … we saw a couple go in, and we started to play free. We were getting stops, getting out in transition, the ball was popping, and we were just finding guys.”
Tatum has established that he’s capable of greatness in postseason must-win situations. He dropped a Game 7-record 51 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. Last season, he delivered a 46-point pièce de résistance in a must-win Game 6 at Milwaukee.
This was actually the third 30-point performance of this series for Tatum. It just hasn’t felt like it because his first-team All-NBA act had vanished faster than David Copperfield in the fourth quarter.
This time, though, his impact was commensurate with his stat line: 33 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal. The Celtics needed every one of those.
Tatum turned the tide in the third quarter, but he was just as pivotal stemming it in the fourth quarter.
The resilient Heat whittled the Celtics’ 9-point lead to 5 with 9:41 to go. Joe Mazzulla used a timeout to stem the momentum (imagine that) and reinsert Tatum. JT calmly buried a 19-foot fadeaway — the type of mid-range shot the Celtics usually treat like radioactive material — for his first fourth-quarter field goal of the series in 17-plus minutes.
That lit the fuse for a 12-0 run that was punctuated by a trademark Tatum step-back three followed by his dish out of a double-team for a Smart triple that gave the Celtics a 100-83 advantage.
Miami was in the rearview mirror for good.
Tatum finished 5 of 7 for 11 points in the fourth. Genuine MVP-caliber stars answer their team’s distress call and come to the rescue.
“The great scorers, they are going to figure it out at some point,” said Miami maestro Erik Spoelstra. “You have to try to make it as tough as possible ... but … you’re not expecting a great player like Tatum to have multiple off-nights. You have to do things that will exceed it.”
There was a lot of bluster from the Celtics entering Game 4, with both Smart and Brown channeling the 2004 Red Sox, saying “don’t let us win one.”
But Tatum, who earlier this postseason pronounced himself humbly one of the best players in the world after putting the defibrillator paddles to the Celtics season against Philadelphia in Game 6, wasn’t in the mood for brash remarks or chest-beating.
Just like on the court, he was on target with the circumstances. The Celtics are the ones who collapsed the cave, and now they have to dig their way out of the rubble.
“We didn’t play well the first three games. We didn’t deserve to win,” Tatum said. “But we didn’t want that to define us, define the season. We’ve still got a long uphill battle to go. But tonight was a good start, just try to carry this momentum towards Thursday.”
To become the first NBA team to come back from 3-0 to win, any messages delivered by the Celtics and their best player now must be delivered via deeds, not words.