Had Jayson Tatum’s isolation plays at the end of regulation and late in overtime been flipped, the thought process for the Boston Celtics and their 22-year-old star forward would have made perfect sense.
1. Blown up at the rim by Miami defensive ace Bam Adebayo on an attempted soaring dunk.
2. Loitering on the perimeter for too long, pounding the ball and then hoisting a low-percentage and needlessly distant 3-pointer when all the Celtics needed was one point.
Had things gone in that order, human nature pretty much would have covered Tatum’s decisions on two plays that proved costly in Miami’s 117-114 overtime victory to open the Eastern Conference finals. When you get destroyed in the paint on a brilliant defensive play even more athletic than your own, you understandably might be a wee shy about venturing in there again.
Problem was, the order was not flipped. The laconic effort and dubious clock management on Tatum’s shot from deep on the left wing happened first. It was a lazy possession by the Celtics that again raised questions about their late-game execution, an issue that showed itself as they were surviving a seven-game series against Toronto in the conference semis.
As breathtaking as Adebayo’s instinctive reaction was to meet Tatum at the rim and not only block the dunk but control the rebound, that never would have happened had Boston handled things better as the fourth quarter ticked away.
“I think obviously switching has something to do with it,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We need to handle it better, there's no question about it. Not only was there probably too much pounding of the ball, it was also not as much space the way they were guarding. We need to do a better job of that.”
It’s worth noting that Stevens contributed to any matchups issues and a traffic jam about 29 feet from the basket when he called timeout with 22 seconds left in regulation. Jimmy Butler had just put the Heat in front, 106-105, with a 3-pointer from the right corner.
By pausing, the Celtics did more than allow Miami to get its defense set for the halfcourt. It enabled Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to sub in the defenders he wanted, Derrick Jones Jr. and Andre Iguodala for Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro. It was the peskier, stickier Jones over whom Tatum launched his shot.
Stevens referred several times to watching the film and fixing things before Game 2. But he didn’t throw Tatum under any of the buses moving folks around on the Disney campus.
“I trust that he'll make the right decision,” Stevens said. “He's a hell of a player. When he has the ball, I feel good about it.”
Stevens is renowned for his ATOs, those after-timeout plays that light up scoreboards and NBA writers’ eyes. In this instance, Step 1 would have been moving the ball and some players in the 22 seconds allotted. A mid-range jumper, a layup, even splitting a pair of free throws with little or no time left would have been every bit as effective at a vastly higher percentage.
But the Celtics had gotten stagnant offensively earlier in the game, costing themselves leads as big as 13 points in the first half and 14 early in the fourth quarter. And that’s how they let the fourth fizzle at the end.
"Continue to move,” is how Celtics guard Marcus Smart described his team’s imperative. “We’re great, but to play a team like this is going to take everybody.
"When we allow those guys to set their defense and just look at the ball and we're not moving, it's tough. That's tough to beat anybody. We just have to limit those isos as much as we can and just really get them moving. Just play and keep them on their heels."
A case could be made that Tatum’s miss from deep to end regulation informed his attack on the rim trailing 116-114. He had fouled Jimmy Butler on the Heat leader’s driving shot for the lead, and Butler’s free throw nudged it to two. That stoppage let Spoelstra again sub in Jones and Iguodala, giving him the defensive unit (with Adebayo, Butler and Jae Crowder) he wanted.
At least that group was set before Boston called its timeout with 12 seconds left.
The Celtics had Miami spread wide and Tatum, with the ball up top, saw a lane. That’s when Adebayo left Smart, his man, to sprint under the rim. As he got there, Tatum was already in flight to the right of the rim, cranking his arm and the ball toward the hole …
“That can be a poster dunk,” Spoelstra said, “and a lot of people won't be willing or aren't willing to make that play and put themselves out there. Jayson Tatum, get into the launching pad, and [Adebayo] just made a big-time save for us. I mean, Tatum did have an angle, and it looked like he had an open lane to the rim.”
Adebayo’s arm bent back as Tatum jammed the ball down but not through. It squirted toward the floor and Adebayo grabbed it.
“It's just, you get on that big stage, you just got to make big plays and I made a big play,” Miami’s 6-foot-9 center said.
In this third season out of Kentucky, the 23-year-old Adebayo finished second to New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award after earning his first All-Star selection and nearly doubling his scoring average to 15.9 points per game. He was also rewarded with a spot on the league’s All-Defensive second team, an honor he justified with what he said Tuesday night was the No. 1 play of his young NBA career.
I like both shots that I got. I just missed one. They made a great play at the rim on the second one.”
“I came into the league as a defender and an energy guy,” Adebayo said. “Just having that moment [I] kind of flashed back to my rookie year where all I did was play defense and just provide energy.”
Said Tatum: “I like both shots that I got. I just missed one. They made a great play at the rim on the second one.”
Tatum did get one more frenzied look, when Boston – out of timeouts – inbounded to him just beyond midcourt with 2.5 seconds left. He fell down with two Heat defenders contesting, but got up and, somehow without traveling, hoisted up a shot that could have knotted the score. It bounced off.
But things never should have gotten to that point for Tatum or his team.
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