2024 NBA Finals: Jayson Tatum is focused on 'whatever it takes' to help Celtics win, like it or not

BOSTON — Whether it was gamesmanship or pure candor from Dallas' head coach, Jason Kidd's proclamation of Jaylen Brown being Boston's best player certainly shifted a blistering spotlight back onto the battle that's brewed throughout Brown and Jayson Tatum's seven seasons together. It's been a fight for these Celtics to resist the temptations of external antagonism, to the point Jrue Holiday felt the need to clarify his statement on the matter from Saturday's practice, before Holiday took questions from the media following his team-high 26 points in the Celtics' 105-98 Game 2 win over the Mavericks Sunday night.

“I do not prefer one or the other. I prefer both,” Holiday said. “Both of them are superstars, and it's being shown out here on the biggest stage in the world.”

The fact neither Tatum nor Brown, and for the first-team All-NBA selection in particular, are an offensive engine unto themselves, a pound-the-ball playmaker like Luka Dončić across this Finals floor, has left the margins for both Celtics All-Stars to be scrutinized when their absolute best performances are absent from the biggest moments.

Several of Tatum’s powerful drives on Sunday night, for his latest trial by Twitter, resulted in the ball trickling on the rim long enough to spin off and into the hands of a Mavericks rebounder. His step-back this postseason has been spotty from 3-point land and the midrange alike. When Tatum cashed his only triple of Game 2, on a swing-swing-swing sequence late in the third, he bobbed his head with relief far more than pride. “Obviously I need to shoot better,” Tatum said. “Gah-lee …”

Tatum, though, functioned as more of a facilitator than Dončić this evening, as was the case in Game 1 as well — when Tatum posted 5 helpers to Dončić’s single setup. Tatum racked up 8 assists by intermission Sunday evening before finishing with 18 points, 9 rebounds and 12 dimes. “It wasn’t like I had to do anything spectacular,” Tatum said. “It was just about finding the open guy.” Dallas has made him contort through crowds whenever he’s probed the paint — often thanks to Dončić’s matador defense clearing a runway for Tatum or Brown to drive. “Every time I take a couple dribbles, there’s like three people right there,” Tatum said. And that’s where he’s responded by firing to open teammates when too many Mavericks have followed him.

“Coming into a game, it’s kinda similar to a puzzle, and he’s done a great job learning how to solve the puzzle and do different things,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “Tonight with the way they were rotating, and the way that they were defending, the most important thing was to make the right play at the rim.”

It was there at the end of Game 3 against Indiana, where Tatum snapped a no-look, behind-the-back beauty to Al Horford for a dagger triple after Tatum drew three defenders at the basket. It was there all Sunday night, when Tatum turned the corner and turned Dallas’ rotations into easy looks for shooters along the perimeter or Holiday lurking along the baseline.

“Sometimes when I drive and I might get stuck, I need somebody to drift with me or to kind of be in space and be in my vision,” Holiday said. “So I think for the most part, I just try to stay in front of him, give him a good outlet and he's been making great reads.”

Tatum was the first player to text Holiday once Boston traded for its former postseason adversary, after Milwaukee flipped the veteran guard to Portland for Damian Lillard. Tatum has also found a special synergy with Boston’s other All-Star newcomer, 7-foot-3 center Kristaps Porziņģis, where the pair have perfected a pick-and-pop action that stretches most opponents until they snap.

The reality is Boston is built to withstand poor shooting displays from any critical cog of its top six. Tatum was not the only Celtic to struggle with his shot this evening. Boston was just 10-of-39 from beyond the arc. Porziņģis missed all three of his attempts from downtown. Sam Hauser missed all five. Brown was just 1-of-4 himself.

But this lineup is so complete and so deep, Tatum has so many players to prop up with all the eyeballs he commands, dancing with Derrick Jones Jr. possession after possession and then evading helper after helper. “I draw so much attention, I’m not always going to get the shot,” Tatum said. Whereas if Dallas doesn’t receive efficient buckets from both Dončić and Kyrie Irving, the Mavericks may truly lack the playmaking to escape one of these contests unscathed. Tatum, instead, focuses on prioritizing the ball popping around Boston’s perimeter attack.

“I’m really tired of hearing about one guy or this guy or that guy and everybody trying to make it out to be anything other than Celtics basketball,” Mazzulla said. “Everybody that stepped on that court made winning plays on both ends of the floor. That’s the most important thing.”

Holiday’s cutting unlocked several scoring opportunities that would not have otherwise materialized. Porziņģis, for his second-half shakiness, found another first-quarter flurry. Payton Prichard checked into the third quarter with 3 seconds left, and banked a heave that swung all the momentum back in favor of the raucous home crowd. Brown said Boston’s reserve point guard even checked himself into the game to launch that exact prayer off the backboard and through cotton. “The play of the game that can’t go unnoticed, the humility of our team, is Payton’s shot at the end of the quarter,” added Mazzulla.

“We got a lot of weapons on our team,” Brown said.

The Celtics are now two wins away from finishing the business this franchise feels it squandered two years ago, after claiming a 2-1 lead over Golden State in the 2022 NBA Finals. That was the season where then-Celtics head coach Ime Udoka first challenged Tatum to evolve as a passer. So much of his and this team’s overall evolution has resulted from the shortcomings of that series. “It has a lot to do with that I’ve been here before and we didn’t win,” Tatum said of his willingness to move the ball.

As this matchup shifts back to Dallas, don’t expect anything to change from his approach, either, even if his scoring never boons or his step-backs never stabilize. He’s Boston’s leading rebounder through both contests, ripping down 11 boards in both. He’s switched onto Dončić play after play, with the Celtics smartly sticking Tatum onto Daniel Gafford or Dereck Lively II in preparation of Dallas’ endless pick-and-rolls. He’s crouched into his stance. He’s shuffled his feet.

“We always talk about do whatever it takes,” Tatum said, “for however long it takes.”

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