BOSTON — If the Boston Celtics are going to pull off a historic comeback against the Miami Heat, Jayson Tatum has to be formidable. And while the natural instinct is to think it comes down to Tatum’s scoring, his biggest footprint may ultimately come from dissuading Jimmy Butler from doing the same.
Tatum’s defensive intensity can falter as much as anything with this Celtics roller coaster. But when he’s engaged and active at that end of the field, the Celtics are a much more dangerous team. While Boston has beefed up its defense over the past two games, breathing life into a streak that seemed almost over, it was Tatum’s ability to get Butler to chase different matchups that was key to bottling up the offense. from Miami.
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Tatum’s impact is much more noticeable with the eyeball test than any of the already flawed defensive settings out there. When Butler finds Tatum as his main defender, he often works quickly to generate change and rarely chooses to attack the basket – or at least without the same vigor as, say, when the smaller Derrick White is compared to him.
The Celtics threw just about everyone on their roster in Butler, but had their best success when one of their big wings – Tatum or Jaylen Brown – served as their primary defender. Butler is far more likely to attack a smaller guard or try to fly Robert Williams III through the air on counterfeit pumps than to challenge Tatum.
NBA tracking data suggests that Tatum was Butler’s primary defenseman for almost a third of Butler’s total offensive time. Over 28 minutes of game time and 121 total possessions, Butler generated just 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting with five assists and three turnovers.
In 56 minutes and 246 total possessions against any other defenseman, Butler generated 113 points on 48-for-97 shooting with 29 assists and 11 turnovers.
Tatum is not some sort of lockdown defender against Butler. No one is. But the data seems to suggest he’s much more likely to move the ball when Tatum is the primary defender.
Tatum spent the least time of the series defending Butler in Game 5 on Thursday, but the lopsided scoreline may have contributed to that. Tatum dominated this game with both his scoring and his game.
But in Game 6, and if the Celtics are lucky enough to see Game 7, there will be times when Boston will need Tatum to step up to the challenge of defending Butler and making sure he doesn’t take over. One of those games is going to be tight at the finish line — it’s usually Jimmy Time — and Boston might need Tatum to be the one to refuse to let Butler win another game with his crunch-time play.
Much of that streak has come down to shooting, but the most shocking difference in Boston’s play over the past two games has been its defensive intensity.
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The Celtics spent the last two quarters of Game 4 and the start of Game 5 absolutely invading the Heat. Boston saw their “stocks” skyrocket with 16 interceptions/blocks in Game 4 and another 17 in Game 5. This defense led to an easier offense and relieved Tatum to carry the team into half court.
It was Tatum’s offense that carried Boston to Games 6 and 7 against the Sixers while avoiding elimination in the second round. The Celtics may need him to post strong numbers again to make a historic comeback.
But it’s what Tatum does to set the defensive tone that could ultimately determine whether Boston is the first team in NBA history to make a comeback after losing 0-3.