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Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics took a 2-0 series lead to Brooklyn Saturday night, knowing that their most important road challenge of the season awaited. The superstar wing also knew that a change of environment wasn’t about to change the focus of his team, and he made sure of that by being the best player and leader on the Barclays Center court.
Tatum erupted for 39 points, five rebounds, six assists, and six steals, leading the Celtics to a 109-103 victory, becoming the first player in franchise history to log a 35-5-5-5 playoff performance. He single-handedly outscored the combined efforts of Nets superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (16 points apiece). And most importantly, he instilled belief within his teammates, which allowed them to maintain their lead from the 3:58 mark of the first quarter all the way through the final buzzer, placing them one win away from a first-round sweep.
“The most important thing about what we trying to accomplish is that we're all on the same page and we all are competing,” Tatum said postgame. “I tell the guys all the time in timeouts, especially late in games, my message is, ‘Nobody plays harder than we do.’ I'm always reminding guys that whoever is on the floor, guys coming off the bench, that's what I want people to think about. That we're the hardest playing team in the league 1-through-15.”
The Celtics needed that message Saturday night as Brooklyn never went away, making run after run. But every one of those runs, the Celtics sustained, never losing composure and thus never losing the lead.
“We would play a good stretch or two, and get that 11 or 12-point lead and they would bounce back,” said head coach Ime Udoka. “A lack of rotation or turnovers on our end would get them back into it, and that was big going into the fourth quarter to get that cushion back up, knowing they would push. I felt our physicality and attention to detail on certain guys was great. Durant only shooting three threes and Irving going 0-for-7 on a lot of tough, contested [threes] kind of told the story of how we’re defending.”
Tatum set the tone on the defensive end with his six steals, which marked a career-high for either a regular-season or playoff game. As a team, the Celtics forced 21 turnovers and off those turnovers, they scored 37 points.
On top of those turnovers, the C’s also created countless deflections, as Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and others all provided relentless pressure.
“Smart, even Al, diving on the floor, we need that from everybody,” said Tatum. “If Al's diving on the floor, there's no excuse for me not to or JB. We all know that. We all got each other's back. So being on the same page communicating and competing, playing as hard as you can.”
Jaylen Brown has also stepped up as a leader to make sure that the team is coming in with the right focus, as Grant Williams described after Saturday’s pregame shootaround. “JB does a great job saying that every single game, ‘We are who we are, we have to be true to ourselves, we have to trust one another, and we have to be our best.’”
Having not one star, but two, instilling such empowerment has gone a long way in forming championship-caliber chemistry and determination.
"That’s something that myself and Jayson have been challenged to do more,” said Brown, who notched 23 points, four rebounds, five assists, and two steals. “Taking the reins is something that we've grown in that regard: being a leader, speaking to different guys separately in different ways, finding ways to inspire, motivate, influence your teammates.”
Whatever Brown and Tatum are saying, it’s working, and they have a 3-0 series lead to show for it.