2024 NBA Finals: Jayson Tatum focuses on ‘whatever it takes’ to help Celtics win, like it or not

BOSTON — Whether it was gamesmanship or pure honesty from the Dallas head coach, Jason Kidd’s declaration that Jaylen Brown is Boston’s best player has certainly turned the bright lights back on to the battle that has been brewing throughout Brown and Jayson Tatum’s seven seasons together. It has been such a battle to resist the temptations of outside rivalry by the Celtics that Jrue Holiday felt the need to clarify his statement on the matter from Saturday’s practice, before Holiday took questions from the media after his team blew a 26-point win over the Celtics. 105-98 in Game 2 of the NBA Finals over the Mavericks on Sunday night.

“I don’t prefer one or the other. I prefer both,” Holiday said. “They’re both stars, and they’re being performed here on the biggest stage in the world.”

The fact that neither Tatum nor Brown, and for a first-team All-NBA pick in particular, is an offensive engine in their own right, a ball-player like Luka Doncic across the Finals floor, leaves margins for both Celtics. All-Stars will be scrutinized when their all-time best performers miss big moments.

Several of Tatum’s hard shots Sunday night, in his latest Twitter experience, caused the ball to fall off the rim long enough for it to spin and fall into the hands of a Mavericks player. His step back in the postseason has been choppy from 3-point land and mid-range alike. When Tatum cashed in his only triple of Game 2, on a swing-and-swing sequence late in the third, he shook his head in relief far more than pride. He was just 6-for-22 from the floor and 1-for-7 from deep. “Obviously I need to shoot better,” Tatum said. “Gah Lee…”

Tatum, though, served more as a facilitator than Doncic this evening, as was the case in Game 1 as well — when Tatum sent five helpers to set up Doncic’s one-on-one. Tatum had eight assists at intermission Sunday night before finishing with 18 points, nine rebounds and 12 dimes. “It wasn’t like I had to do anything amazing,” Tatum said. “It was just a matter of finding the guy who was open.” Dallas had him squirming through the crowd whenever he checked the paint — often thanks to Dončić’s bullfighting defense clearing the runway for a Tatum or Brown drive. “Every time I make some tackles, there’s three guys out there,” Tatum said. And that’s where he responded by firing at his teammates when too many Mavericks followed suit.

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“Coming into the game it’s kind of like a puzzle, and he’s done a great job of learning how to solve the puzzle and do different things,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzola said. “Tonight, with the way they were rotating, the way they were defending, the most important thing was making the right plays at the rim.”

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 09: Jayson Tatum #0 and Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics make a save during the third quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 09, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading or using this image, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddy Meyer/Getty Images)

Through two games, Jayson Tatum leads the NBA Finals with 17 assists. (Photo by Maddy Meyer/Getty Images)

It was there at the end of Game 3 against Indiana, where Tatum made a beautiful behind-the-back look to Al Horford for a dagger three after Tatum had drawn three defenders into the basket. He was there all Sunday night, when Tatum turned the corner and turned Dallas’ turnovers into easy looks for shooters along the perimeter or Holiday lurking along the baseline.

“Sometimes when I’m driving and I might get stuck, I need someone to drift with me or be in space and be in my vision,” Holiday said. “So I think for the most part, I’m just trying to stay in front of him, give him a good outlet and he makes great reads.”

Tatum was the first player to text Holiday once Boston traded its former foe in the postseason, after Milwaukee flipped the veteran guard to Portland in exchange for Damian Lillard. Tatum also found a special synergy with Boston’s other All-Star newcomer, 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzinis, as the duo mastered a pick-and-pop move that stretches most opponents until they explode.

The reality is that Boston is built to withstand poor shooting performances from any decisive cog in the top six. Tatum wasn’t the only Celtic player who struggled with his shot this evening. Boston was just 10 of 39 from beyond the arc. Porzinis missed all three of his attempts from downtown. Sam Hauser missed all five. Brown himself was one of four.

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But this lineup is so complete and so deep, Tatum has so many players supporting him with every eyeball he commands, dancing with Derrick Jones Jr. grabbing possession after possession and then evading helper after helper. “I get a lot of attention, and I’m not always going to get the shot,” Tatum said. While if Dallas doesn’t get effective buckets from both Doncic and Kyrie Irving, the Mavericks may truly lack the playmaking to escape one of these contests unscathed. Instead, Tatum focuses on prioritizing the ball that appears around the perimeter of Boston’s offense.

“I’m really tired of hearing about one guy or this guy or that guy and everyone trying to be anything other than Celtics basketball,” Mazzola said. “Everyone who steps on this field has won on both ends of the floor. That’s the most important thing.”

Holiday’s cut opened up many scoring opportunities that would not have been possible otherwise. Porzinis, terrified in the second half, found another flurry of the first quarter. Payton Pritchard entered the third quarter with 3 seconds left and hit a slam dunk at the buzzer that put all the momentum back in favor of the raucous home crowd. Boston’s backup point guard checked himself into the game to launch that exact prayer off the backboard and through the cotton, Brown said. Many players won’t throw a Hail Mary to save their precious lineage. “The style of play that cannot go unnoticed, and the humility of our team, is Payton’s shot at the end of the quarter,” Mazzola added.

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

The Celtics are now two wins away from finishing the job this franchise feels wasted two years ago, after taking a 2-1 lead over Golden State in the 2022 NBA Finals. This was the season in which then-Celtics coach Emi Udoka challenged Tatum. For the first time to develop as a passer. A lot of the overall growth for him and his team came from the flaws of that series. “It’s a lot to do with I’ve been here before and we haven’t won,” Tatum said of his willingness to move the ball.

With this game back in Dallas, don’t expect anything to change with his game either, even if his scoring isn’t as good or his stride isn’t as stable. He is Boston’s leading rusher in both contests, ripping down 11 boards in both. It’s turned into Dončić play after play, with the Celtics smartly sticking Tatum over Daniel Gafford or Dereck Lively II in preparation for the never-ending Dallas game. He crouched down in his stance. He shuffled his feet.

“We always talk about doing whatever it takes, no matter how long it takes,” Tatum said.

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