Jayson Tatum has record 13 assists in NBA Finals debut win

Jayson Tatum has record 13 assists in NBA Finals debut win

SAN FRANCISCO—It’s just basketball.

Celtics coach Ime Udoka remembers being on the sidelines for the NBA Finals nearly a decade ago, as an assistant coach for a Spurs squad whose ball movement and defensive acuity made it one of the most beloved teams of its generation. What he took away from those battles and imparted to his players who were making their own final debuts was that they have to venture into this new territory and remain themselves.

“It’s just basketball,” Udoka said. “It’s all the little things that win and lose a series. Obviously, Golden State is a team that will make you pay if you have some missteps as far as that. So for us, try to simplify it, keep it simple with our guys and just get back to the basics. Playing defense at a high level, sharing the ball offensively — none of that changes because we’re in the finals now.”

As the third quarter of Game 1 got away from the Celtics on Thursday, they found themselves in familiar yet uncharted territory. They’ve made comebacks. They’ve won games in the heat of the postseason when the deficit seemed insurmountable. It was the finals, it was Steph Curry and the dynastic Warriors, but it was still just basketball.

“The message at the start of the fourth was: We’ve been here before. We know what it takes to overcome a deficit like that,” Tatum said. “Obviously, that’s a great team. It’s not going to be easy. But just knowing we’ve been in that situation before, and we’ve gotten (ourselves) out of it. We had a lot of time left, right? It wasn’t time to hang your head or be done; it was time to figure it out.”

For Tatum to eventually flourish, he needed Jaylen Brown to break through. Brown created the first 14 points of the fourth quarter, burying a few absurd isolation shots before finally carving into the lane to find Rob Williams for the alley-oop. While Brown and Derrick White pushed the tempo off makes, misses and steals and the Warriors defense started to fall back on its heels, the lead vanished in minutes.

As Tatum ran up and down the floor watching the comeback take place around him, he never forced his way into the flow of the game. The ball would swing his way, and he would move it. He kept contesting shots on defense, then sprinting to the corners to lead the break. When he got the ball in the paint in transition with just under five minutes left, he didn’t even think about forcing a shot. Instead, he kicked it out to a trailing Al Horford to bury the 3 and take the Celtics’ first two-possession lead. In the end, they won 120-108 and now lead the series.

It’s the kind of game management Tatum’s trainer, Drew Hanlen, has been preaching to him since last summer.

“I think the biggest thing is the advice that Michael Jordan gave Kobe Bryant: At the end of the day, the only thing that people are going to judge you on is if you get the job done or not,” Hanlen told The Athletic after the game. “In past years, (Tatum’s) focus has been on scoring and being able to carry the load on the offensive end through scoring. Whereas now, it’s more so just reading what the defense is giving him, making the right play, not forcing shots, not taking ‘my turn’ shots, and really just getting everybody involved.”

How Tatum processes the game has evolved throughout the postseason, as he’s faced possibly his hardest test to find the shot of his career. Crunchtime has become less about getting to his spots than finding where they exist on the floor and utilizing them. He has already received enough recognition for his talent; the only thing left to prove is that he can foster winning.

It’s why when the Celtics tied it at 103 halfway through the fourth period, he didn’t try to just slow things down and sixteen control, as he would have in the past. He didn’t feel the need to put his stamp on the game by finally hitting a shot. His team got out running, as it had throughout its run. He spotted White in the corner and called for the ball so he could swing it right away. Two passes later, Horford hit the 3 to retake the lead, and the Celtics never looked back.

“The teams that win in the postseason are all about player movement and ball movement,” Hanlen said. “The thing that I think JT’s grown in so much is, instead of hunting buckets, he’s hunting making the right plays, which has led to his assists being at an all-time high.”

Tatum finished with more points than assists, but his 13 dimes in his finals debut finished one ahead of John Stockton, Isiah Thomas and Jordan for the NBA record.

Tatum was a plus-27 in the fourth quarter, and he didn’t even score. He created 38 points off his passes alone in Game 1, per Synergy. Of his 13 assists, only one was for a shot inside the arc.

Thursday, the Celtics became the first team to win a finals game by double digits after entering the fourth quarter trailing by double digits, per ESPN. Despite Brown and Tatum going a combined 3-of-13 from deep, the Celtics became the third team to hit at least half of their 3s on at least 40 attempts in finals history, per Stathead. The supporting cast went 64.2 percent from deep, which is remarkable considering the valid concerns earlier in the season that the team didn’t have enough shooting around its two stars to win a title, let alone a playoff series.

Boston doesn’t get to this point without White suddenly becoming a knockdown shooter since welcoming a baby in the last round. Horford always finds a way to make an outsized impact, and Marcus Smart has been his best self when he can walk. But the pieces of a champion orbit around its stars, and that’s what the organization has been preparing Brown and Tatum to experience.

“All year leading up to this, we’ve been kind of grooming and preparing Jayson for these moments where teams are going to key in on you so much that they try to take you out of the game,” Smart said. “For us, it’s just to make sure he stays confident and knows that even though they’re doing a good job on you, you still who you are and we got your back. That’s what we are here for, to help you when times like that, to help you get going.”

Though Tatum has spent over a decade training with Hanlen to build his game, Udoka has been the one with him every day this season, working long hours to help him become a leader. Tatum didn’t hide how much the All-NBA snub bothered him last season and knew he had to be a winner if he wanted to reach the first team this year. Udoka was going to put the ball in his hands even more, and it was on him to honor that responsibility.

“I think that was kind of his message from Day 1, just to challenge me to be the best player that I can be and improve other areas of my game,” Tatum said about Udoka. “We watched a lot of film throughout the course of the season of games — just areas, things I could improve on. You know, obviously, play-making was one. Drawing a lot of attention. Just help the team out as much as possible.”

When the Celtics got to the final minutes of Game 1 with a double-digit lead, there was still that nagging fear that the offense would stagnate as Boston tried to run down the clock and Curry would shoot the Warriors back into it. That’s when Tatum got into his two-man game with Smart, baiting the Warriors into blitzing him so he could comfortably get off the ball and gift Smart all the room he needed to put the game to bed.

“I love his growth and progression in those areas, where he’s still guarding on the defensive end, still getting others involved, not pouting about his shots. And trying to play through some mistakes and physicality they were playing with him,” Udoka said. “When they went a box-and-1 on him to try to take him out, it made it tough at times, but that’s why we’re a team. We don’t rely on one guy. You saw others step up tonight.”

Brown and White drove the Celtics toward the finish line, then Tatum brought them across. They didn’t take turns but rode the wave that raised all of Boston’s ships. When Brown got the ball off a defensive rebound, Tatum would leak out to the corner to open the lane and spark the ball movement. When White went into the paint and drew a crowd, he would pass to an empty spot in the corner for Brown to jump out on the couch and bury the shot.

“We’re battle-tested. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot of experiences, a lot of losses. We know what it takes to win,” Brown said. “I give credit to every guy in that locker room, from top to bottom. We got a great, resilient group. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

In the past, scoring 12 points would make Tatum seem like a pretty gigantic weak link. That’s happened a few times in the postseason, where everything was a struggle and frustration boiled over. He had one frustrated take foul on Draymond Green in the first half, but then spoke with his play the rest of the way. So when asked after the game how he felt to have such a poor scoring night, he didn’t care.

“Ecstatic, right? Forty points in the fourth quarter? JB played big. Al, Payton (Pritchard), D-White. Those guys made big shots — timely shots as well. And we won, right?” Tatum said. “I had a bad shooting night. I just tried to impact the game in other ways. We’re in the championship. We’re in the finals. All I was worried about was trying to get a win, and we did. That’s all that matters at this point.

“So I don’t expect to shoot that bad again. But if it means we keep winning, I’ll take it.”

At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was getting the job done.

(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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