NBA Finals 2022: Jayson Tatum’s historic play helps Celtics steal Game 1 and puts Warriors behind

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NBA Finals 2022: Jayson Tatum's historic play helps Celtics steal Game 1 and puts Warriors behind

When the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka as their new head coach last summer, he wasted little time setting expectations for the team’s star players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. During an interview with “Jalen & Jacoby” in August, he laid the burden on the two to make everyone around them better.

“We have multiple handlers. We have multiple playmakers,” said Udoka. “That’s an area where we need to grow with Jaylen and Jayson. It’s not just about hitting the basketball. It’s these guys who initiate offense and are better playmakers. This is the next step in their development.”

Easier said than done, of course, and this season hasn’t always been smooth sailing. But Udoka had a vision of what this team could be like if these two used their playmaking skills to the full; it came to life on Thursday night. Tatum went out on 3 of 17 and the duo only had 36 points combined, yet the Celtics won a Finals game away by double figures.

That wouldn’t have been possible just a few months ago, but instead of resorting to hero ball or getting frustrated and trying to play your way through a crowd, Tatum and Brown took what defense offered and made the right play over and over again. Combined, they had more assists (18) than shots (13) and had just six turnovers.

Brown was spectacular in the fourth quarter as he led the Celtics’ comeback. After Tatum’s shot failed him, Brown took over, either scoring or assisting on 20 of their first 23 points in the frame. The Celtics won’t win if he doesn’t put the team on their backs for the first six minutes.

But without trying to ignore Brown’s exploits, the most encouraging aspect for the was the way Tatum picked apart the Warriors’ defense and made a huge impact on the game, despite having his least efficient shooting performance in the playoffs Celtics.

Tatum is the one who has the ball in his hands most of the time, and Tatum is the one the Warriors are trying to stop. It’s up to him to set the tone, and that’s exactly what he did in Game 1. You won’t shoot every night, but you can always control your approach; Tatum’s was right on the money Thursday. His 13 assists were a career high and also the most for any player in his Finals debut.

“Yes, I think it was kind of like that [Udoka’s] Message from day one just to challenge myself to be the best player I can be and improve other areas of my game,” Tatum said. “We’ve seen a lot of movies over the season, just areas, things like me could improve. You know, of course making the game was one of them. Get a lot of attention. Just help the team as much as you can.”

Tatum drew a lot of attention in Game 1. The Warriors shielded his face from the ball and when he got his hands on it, all eyes were on him. If he wanted to drive, the defenders would help as soon as possible. Rather than try to force the action, Tatum capitalized on the Warriors’ aggression against them by playing early passes.

He rarely got stuck in a crowd and only had two turnovers because he got rid of the ball before the defense could completely collapse. In fact, the timing of his passes was so sharp that he often caught the Warriors’ helping defenders, whose weight and momentum shifted to him, giving them no chance to recover to the periphery.

Here’s a great example from the end of the first quarter. Tatum comes off a screen and takes Steph Curry to a switch so the Warriors are ready to help. Otto Porter Jr. instinctively switches down to the suit to try and clip a drive, but Tatum reads this and makes the pass immediately. The ball is already in the air when Porter tries to sit down and that gives the Celtics the advantage. Pritchard attacks Porter’s late closeout, swings it to Grant Williams who can now attack Andre Iguodala’s late closeout (which was very bad), and suddenly Derrick White has a wide open 3.

Tatum doesn’t even get a hockey assist for it, but his willingness to move the ball and make the right play has paid off.

The same in the second quarter. This time Tatum comes off a screen and goes downhill at Jordan Poole so Draymond Green and Iguodala slide over. Sensing the danger, Tatum immediately whips the ball into the corner before it even hits the colour, taking all helping defenders out of play. Daniel Theis stays behind and buries the third

Let’s show another example, this time from the third quarter. Another pick and roll gives Tatum a chance to attack Looney. He gets a step on him to the baseline and Green flashes over to break the drive. Only, there is never a drive because Tatum has already thrown the ball across country to Marcus Smart. The Warriors crawl and Al Horford lands out of the corner with a practice level 3.

“For the whole year leading up to that, we prepared and groomed Jayson for those moments where teams are going to get into you so much that they’re going to try and take you out of the game,” Smart said. “You have to be able to make plays and influence the game in different ways. He had 13 assists tonight. That’s what we’ve been preaching to ourselves all year. He’s got a lot of practice at it.”

Making Tatum a surefire playmaker has been a years-long odyssey for Udoka and the Celtics, and the hard work paid off in Game 1. The streak is far from over, but the balance has tipped in the Celtics’ favor in large part due to Tatum’s ability to control offense without scoring.

Along with the 1-0 lead — the team that wins Game 1 won the Finals 71 percent of the time — and the home win, the Celtics put the Warriors on the back foot and forced them to react. Now the Warriors must decide whether to stay the course or adjust their defense of Tatum.

Do they keep showing all kinds of help and challenging other players to beat them? Maybe, but the Celtics shoot 40 percent at wide open 3s (closest defender more than two yards away) and 37.9 percent at open 3s (nearest four to six feet away) in the playoffs. Their 37.8 percent clip of 3 overall is only the Mavericks in the postseason, and they’ve hit 20-plus-3s four times in 19 games. Sure, Al Horford and Derrick White might not combine again for 11, but they might if you continue to leave them wide open.

Or will the Warriors stay home with the Celtics’ shooters and give Tatum, who has become one of the league’s best scorers, more room? A risky proposition considering that while Tatum does tend to go stone cold at times like he did in Game 1, he always bounces back. In the first three rounds, Tatum failed to reach 20 points three times. In the following games, he averaged 33.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists.

Either way, it’s now up to the Warriors to make a tough decision. Tatum showed in Game 1 that he’s ready for anything that comes his way.

“His style of play has steadily improved. Tonight it was just brilliant,” said Horford. “Offensively he didn’t really score, but then he found guys. He read defence. It just shows his growth. He’s been getting better and better since the beginning of the year too. He’s the kind of guy who will find out. One way or another, he’ll find out. We’re betting on him a lot and he’s delivering. That’s what he does.

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