The indelible Jayson Tatum moments from the Celtics’ 141-133 double-overtime win over the Clippers Thursday, the plays that filled up highlight reels and made TD Garden shake, usually involved him putting the ball in the basket in ways that few others can.
The powerful dunks, the side-step 3-pointers, the elegant footwork that ended with layups and gasps. He had 39 points, and Boston needed just about all of them.
But his work at the other end of the floor was just as important, especially in the moments that mattered most. Because the other end of the floor was where Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard was lurking, and most often Leonard finds a way to do what he wants. Tatum did not let that happen.
“I’ve been watching film on him since I was in high school,” Tatum said. “Obviously, one of the best players in the league. Top two or three players in the league. You want those moments, just to compete against a guy like that.”
Late in the game, when one big play could have shifted things in either direction, Tatum played a key role in subduing Leonard, one of the game’s most dynamic players.
After going 9 for 20 with no turnovers to start, Leonard was just 1 for 7 with three turnovers over the final two minutes of regulation and the overtimes, most often with Tatum crowding his airspace and disrupting his plan.
“He wants the challenge,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “No one respects Kawhi more than Jayson and appreciates him more than Jayson. He’s going to play his heart out against him on both ends of the court because he knows if you don’t, you get embarrassed pretty easily. I thought he did a really good job. You just try to make those shots as tough as possible.
“When Jayson is able to [contest] shots, his length is a factor. He did that on a lot of occasions and Kawhi still hit a few, as did the other guys. He played a good two-way game, but he’s been a good two-way player.”
At the start of the first overtime, Leonard spun toward the baseline on Tatum and actually put himself in position for a layup that he usually makes. Tatum did well to contest the try, but probably got a bit lucky that it caromed off the rim. Leonard chased down the rebound and hit a jumper from a tough angle, however.
A minute later, Leonard tried posting up Tatum on the left side again. This time he squared up and unfurled his usual array of fakes and jab-steps as he probed for an opening. This time, Tatum kept Leonard on the perimeter and really bothered him with his length, and the shot was an airball.
With about 1:30 left, Leonard caught a pass on the left arc and looked to attack before a charging Tatum could get his feet set. He powered to his left with a between-the-legs dribble. Tatum did well to recover and force Leonard toward the baseline, where Gordon Hayward was waiting to help if needed.
Leonard then pivoted back toward the paint, away from Hayward, before Tatum poked the ball away. With the shot clock running down, Leonard was forced to fire up a long hook shot that Tatum nearly blocked.
“Jayson does a really good job of using his length to his advantage, and he did a really good job of affecting [Leonard’s] shots down the stretch,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said, “shots for Kawhi that time after time we’ve all seen. That also shows the maturity level he’s taken to his game at both ends.”
With 40 seconds left in the first overtime, Leonard caught a pass in the midrange area, a danger zone for opponents. After a quick jab-step, he took two hard dribbles to his right before launching a fadeaway that Tatum once again nearly got a fingertip on. The shot was short, much like many of Leonard’s misses down the stretch.
In the second overtime, the Clippers mostly relied on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Leonard attempted just one shot, a 3-pointer on a secondary fast break that Tatum turned into a cloudy look. He may have made contact with Leonard’s hand on the miss, and Leonard was furious that no foul was called, but the shot never had a chance.
In all, when Leonard was defended by Tatum, he made 4 of 12 shots and committed three turnovers. Also, Tatum did not commit a shooting foul in the matchup.
“He had to play against one of the league’s best players,” Stevens said, “and he met a great challenge with it.”
Tatum’s defensive excellence was no one-game mirage. He has the best defensive rating among Boston’s starters, and his defensive real plus-minus — an advanced metric that estimates a player’s impact on defensive performance — is the third-best in the NBA, trailing just LeBron James and Kris Dunn.
After Thursday’s game, Tatum headed to a private jet that would take him and fellow All-Star Kemba Walker to Chicago. Leonard will be there, too, but this time he will be on Tatum’s team.
“So, that’ll be fun,” Tatum said.