MILWAUKEE — Jayson Tatum didn’t want to pout and be sad. The Celtics had blown Game 5 to put their backs against the wall, abandoning their offense once they could see the finish line. Their coach said they blew their golden opportunity and had to salvage their season in someone else’s house.
“I’m sure there would be a big story about how we’re defeated and I don’t believe in us,” Tatum said after Game 5. “It stings, for sure, but it’s 3-2 and it’s the first to four. There’s no sense in being sad or putting your head down because that’s not going to do anything for next game. Always be optimistic and believe in yourself, believe in your group that we can win the game on Friday.”
As coach Ime Udoka put it, they let the opportunity slip away but had a chance to make it a better story. Tatum needed a better story. He had done so much leading up to this series to declare his arrival as one of the NBA’s elite players. But five games into a battle against an MVP and champion at his peak, he had yet to show he could go toe to toe with the heaviest of weights.
It felt as though his star ascension was fading, that he couldn’t rise to put a team on his back against the NBA’s titans and carry it all the way to the end. Then he had his supernova Friday.
“It’s why he gets paid the big bucks. That’s it right there, for moments like that,” Marcus Smart said. “I was telling him the whole game, ‘Just be you, man,’ and he was. That’s what he gets paid to do. That’s what we lean on him to do.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 44 points. Tatum had two more. The Bucks star had 30 field-goal attempts. Tatum had two more. Tatum had four turnovers. Antetokounmpo had two more. The two titans of this series threw their best punches, and Tatum finally showed he belongs in the ring, leading a 105-92 Celtics win to force Game 7 back in Boston. He joined Sam Jones as the only Celtics to have multiple 45-point games in the playoffs, per ESPN Stats and Info.
Tatum finished with 46 points on 17-for-32 shooting and hit as many 3s as the entire Bucks roster, going 7-for-15 from deep. He’s been overwhelmed with Milwaukee’s physicality and was settling in big moments throughout the series. That happened at times Friday, but he kept fighting in a way he hadn’t shown yet. Now he has saved the Celtics’ season.
“We saw it in his eyes. He was aggressive, he was coming to us, ‘Give me the ball,’ and we’d give him the ball,” Smart said. “He asked for it, and that’s what we’re going to do.
“That’s why he gets paid the big bucks. So we put the ball in his hands and let him create for us himself.”
There was something different to Tatum this time. He knew that when the offense stagnated in Game 5 and saw its lead evaporate, he was in the middle of it all.
“It was a big-time performance,” Jaylen Brown said. “Our backs against the wall, you love to see J.T. come out aggressive and carry us offensively like he did and force a Game 7. Definitely a signature game for the Celtics and for Jayson.”
After mounting two comebacks in a row in Milwaukee, the Celtics returned to Boston, played 40 great minutes to seemingly cement control of the series, then just got lost. They knew they wanted to find mismatches for Tatum to exploit in isolation, but they did it in such a predictable and lackluster way that it yielded almost nothing. So they found a way in Game 6 to bring their familiar script back to life.
“Knowing that we did that last game, that’s something we talked about. We watched film and we learned from it,” Tatum said. “I think just having that self-awareness constantly talking about it, and Ime did a great job of calling the right things, making sure we were moving and not just playing iso.”
Though much of this win came through Tatum hitting X-ray-vision 3s with guys in his face, the way Boston created its shots in the fourth quarter was a dramatic improvement. There were moments of stagnation brewing in the third and fourth quarters, then Udoka would bring in Derrick White or Smart to help get the ball moving and execute play calls. It allowed them to not only find a mismatch they could accept but run further actions to get the exact one they wanted.
“We were very deliberate about that, being connected and communicating on the fly for certain guys we want to pick on,” Udoka said. “At times, Giannis got fouls, we got a little heavy going after him and got bogged down, and we went away pretty quickly and wanted to still pick on their lesser defenders. One guy may think he has an advantage, but (if) you’ve got a weaker defender on you, it’s on everybody to recognize that, not just us on the sideline.”
When Milwaukee came back in the middle of the fourth quarter to make it a two-possession game, the Celtics found themselves surrounded by the same quicksand they were sinking in two nights before. Tatum lamented those six minutes in the fourth quarter in Game 5 when they settled for whatever Milwaukee would give them. But as that moment approached in Game 6, the Celtics did more than just find who Tatum wanted and pull up.
It became clear at the nine-minute mark this was going to be different. Tatum got the George Hill matchup he wanted, and instead of settling for another bad shot out of the triple-threat, he attacked Hill head-on to draw the foul. Milwaukee has been gapping Tatum with two defenders at the top of the key all series to get him to pick up his dribble before he reaches the paint, forcing him to take soft floaters.
But he spotted Jrue Holiday sinking down toward the paint and knew he could fight his way in there. He watched the film from Game 5 and knew what spots he could beat the defense to. Milwaukee finally wasn’t rushing him into getting himself in trouble.
“He’s cool, calm and collected all the way through,” Smart said. “Even when he’s a little frustrated, he still keeps his poise as much as he can, and he went into another mode right there.”
But then Udoka made an important decision. He used a timeout with 5:23 left, even though Tatum had just buried a 3 and Boston forced a miss in transition. The Celtics were winding the shot clock down way too late and Tatum’s golden touch was bailing them out. Udoka learned from last game when to sense his team needed a shakeup and came up with the perfect call.
Boston’s play out of the timeout started with Tatum posting up Holiday, a deliberate choice to take Milwaukee’s best perimeter defender out to the wing. As Smart fixated on entering to Tatum in the post, Brown ran a “floppy” play behind him to curl from under the basket around two screens and catch an open 3 at the top of the arc.
“Just not get stagnant,” Udoka said. “They started switching a little bit and we knew what hurt us last game, so we want to get a little more movement, off-ball action. They’re gonna switch certain things on-ball, but we can do some different things off-ball, and I think it freed us up a little bit to attack there.”
Over the ensuing possessions, Boston continued to have Smart run point initially, then eventually get it into Tatum’s hands and continue to run actions. Holiday was fighting to stick on Tatum, so they stopped the bland slip screens for mismatches and used Tatum more as a playmaker. Instead of clear outs, he would find his spot, reset the ball with Smart, then get Milwaukee to blitz him so he could pass it to Smart on the roll. It culminated with just under three minutes left when White came to screen for Tatum and instead of trying to find space to square up a mismatch, he rejected the screen and flew to the rim.
HE’S GOT 45 🤯 pic.twitter.com/SevB4N6UcI
— NBA (@NBA) May 14, 2022
“I knew I had it going on the offensive end and it just boils down to — it was five, six minutes left and this was our season on the line, and knowing that (we had to) leave it all on the floor,” said Tatum. “That’s the mindset that I have, the mindset that we all have. So wasn’t gonna leave anything out there and have any regrets. So just trying to do what it took.”
As Tatum has experienced his ups and downs throughout the series, Brown has been the constant. He’s pushed the pace in fourth quarters, given them hot starts when they needed them. He’s kept them alive for as long as you could ask for, but Tatum needed to claim his moment if the Celtics were going to overcome Antetokounmpo.
Now he’s finally seizing control of the story.
“How much it stung losing (Game 5) like that, everybody had a bad taste in their mouth,” Tatum said. “We weren’t defeated, knowing that we still had an opportunity to save our season and come in here and get a win. We believed that. We truly did. We believed in each other, and I think that showed.”
(Photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)