Jayson Tatum

Jayson Tatum dabbles in winning plays -- with help from Marcus Smart

Jayson Tatum dabbles in winning plays -- with help from Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart, his hustle having produced a monster jump ball late in Friday’s nail-biter with the Golden State Warriors, sought out Jayson Tatum as the teams were readying for the crunch-time tip and offered some sage advice.

“I told Jayson on the jump ball, go for the steal,” said Smart. “You know they’re tipping it back, as soon as the ball touches his hand, just take off,  you’re going to be right there for it.’ He listened and he got it.”

Tatum did as instructed, leaning towards the midcourt stripe as Daniel Theis and Willy Cauley-Stein leaped with 99 seconds left in a one-point game.

Cauley-Stein steered the tip back towards teammate Eric Paschall, who reached out his left hand and almost looked surprised to find Tatum racing directly at him.

Tatum barely broke stride, took the ball from Paschall, made one dribble, then dunked as Draymond Green took a big swipe at the ball.

"Smart told me the whole time, ‘They’re going to tip it back, you gotta shoot the lane. Listen to me, listen to me,’” Tatum told reporters in San Francisco. “I listened to him and it worked."

The sequence put Boston up by 1. The next trip down, Tatum hit a little pull-up jumper off a Kemba Walker feed and the Celtics, who trailed by as much as 15 in this game, were able to escape with a 105-100 triumph.

It was a heady play by Tatum but even more impressive given the situation.

Tatum could have been forgiven if his head wasn’t in the game at the time of the jump ball. He had connected on just 6 of 21 attempts before that and seemingly couldn’t get a layup to drop despite relentlessly attacking the basket. Given the way his touch around the hoop has defied him early in the season, Tatum could have been lingering on the past as Smart offered advice about what was about to happen.

But Tatum kept his head in the game. And produced maybe the most important sequence of the night.

“Relentless group,” said Tatum. “Just always on to next play."

Coupled with his winner against the Knicks earlier in the year, it again shows the clutchness that Tatum is operating with. It’s sorta ridiculous considering his age but Tatum has a knack for the big moment.

Tatum is averaging 2.5 points per game in crunch time (any game within five points in the final five minutes). He’s shooting 62.5 percent on field goal attempts in crunch time and hasn’t missed a 3-pointer or a free throw during that time. Expand it out to the entire fourth quarter and Tatum is averaging 5.2 points per fourth quarter in 11 games this season. It’s not exactly Walker’s fourth-quarter craziness but it does rank Tatum in the top 35 among fourth-quarter scorers in the NBA.

Despite his shooting struggles, Tatum finished with a team-high 24 points on Friday night. He added a team-best eight rebounds and three steals (matched by fellow wing Jaylen Brown) and finished plus-6 over 38 minutes.

Tatum is actually shooting a higher percentage beyond the arc (40.3 percent) than inside of it (39.7) so far this season but he hasn’t let his struggles near the rim take away from his effort at either end of the court. Even with Draymond Green defending him at times on Friday, Tatum produced his seventh game of 20+ points this season.

Good things simply happen when Tatum is on the court. Despite his individual shooting woes, the Celtics are plus-128 in his 345 minutes of court time. The next closest: Kemba Walker at plus-71. Tatum also leads the team in rebounding and steals.

Still, the most encouraging aspect is his ability to rise to the occasion. He’s only 21 but has an obvious knack for playing beyond his years.

Sure, it helps to have a savvy vet like Smart whispering in your ear but Tatum made another big play in a big spot. Like Smart, he might just have a bit of Winning Plays in him.

Blakely's Takeaways: Is Jaylen Brown the NBA's most improved player?>>>

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Kings, which tips off Sunday at 3:00 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 3:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

A. Sherrod Blakely's NBA Notebook: All about the D — as in depth — these days

A. Sherrod Blakely's NBA Notebook: All about the D — as in depth — these days

BOSTON — Defense winning championships is one of the oldest clichés in sports. 

Still, it’s the "other" D-word — depth — that more than anything else is fueling the success of NBA teams. 

The Celtics (9-1) are the hottest team in the NBA right now, fueled by a trio — Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — each averaging better than 19 points and each playing above-average defense. 

But with several injuries to rotation players, the Celtics have had to lean on six different starting lineups this season.

And as you start taking a closer look at the top NBA teams, most of them are playing without one of their best players in this still-young NBA season.

The Houston Rockets will be without high-scoring guard Eric Gordon for six weeks because of a knee injury. Indiana All-Star Victor Oladipo is expected back sometime next month after suffering a knee injury in the playoffs last spring.

Other notable players out for extended periods include DeMarcus Cousins (knee) of the Los Angeles Lakers; Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox (ankle); Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) and Washington’s John Wall (Achilles).

The best teams have dealt with those injuries and still managed to find success, a clear signal that their strength is more about the number of players they have, rather than just the big-time names on the back of jerseys. 

LOTS OF HEAVY TALK LATELY ABOUT LOAD MANAGEMENT

After the league fined the Los Angeles Clippers $50,000 for “statements inconsistent with Kawhi Leonard’s health” as it related to their use of load management, the topic has become a much-talked-about issue among players as well as owners, such as the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban. 

“The problem isn’t load management,” Cuban told reporters in Boston earlier this week. “Teams have to be smarter about when to load manage. I’m all for load management. Worse than missing a player in a [regular season] game is missing him in the playoffs.”

The “load management” phenomenon really took off last season when the Toronto Raptors limited the playing time of Leonard, resulting in him being well-rested for the playoffs, which ended with the Raptors claiming the franchise’s first NBA title. 

While there is still some resistance to it among teams, Cuban points to the data suggesting that it works as far as keeping players at or close to their optimum level when it matters most: the postseason. 

“We’re not going, ‘OK, let’s just mess with the league and our meal ticket to fans to do something just because it might be interesting,” Cuban said. “We spend so much money, not just on analytics for predictive reasons, but also for biometrics so we know how smart we can be. The dumb thing would be to ignore the science.”

MELO BLAZIN’ NEW TRAIL OUT WEST

The news that Carmelo Anthony was back in the NBA did not come as a total shock.

But the Portland Trail Blazers?

Injuries, particularly in the frontcourt, have been a factor in the team’s 4-8 start, so the idea of adding a player to shake things up makes a lot of sense. 

But adding Melo, who hasn’t played in the league in more than a year, doesn’t make a lot of sense even if he’s on a non-guaranteed contract. 

Melo is what we call a professional scorer, which is evident by him having scored 25,551 career points, which ranks 19th all-time in NBA history. 

And while he does provide some much-needed frontcourt depth, he doesn’t address their biggest issue of late: their defense. 

The Blazers are in the bottom-10 this season in points allowed (113.9, 22nd in the NBA) which is in stark contrast to where they finished last season (110.5, 14th in the league).

Adding Melo to the mix won’t help, either. 

But for most basketball fans, it will be nice to see Melo back in the league, even if it winds up being for just a few games. 

As one of the all-time great scorers, Melo should have an opportunity to write one more chapter in what will eventually be a Hall of Fame career. 
 

FIZDALE ON THE HOT SEAT?

With the losses continue to pile up for the New York Knicks, coach David Fizdale is looking more and more like the first coach to get fired this season. The Knicks (2-9) have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and are showing few signs of improving. 

There are a couple of Fizdale assistants (Keith Smart and Kaleb Canales) who have served as NBA coaches previously, but much of the buzz in the Big Apple has centered around bringing one of their own back into the fold — Mark Jackson. 

The Brooklyn, N.Y. native played at nearby St. John’s and spent his first five seasons with the Knicks, followed by 12 more seasons with eight different teams. He's currently an analyst for ABC and ESPN.

Another name to keep an eye on? 

Ex-Celtics assistant and former head coach in Chicago and Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau. 

BACKUP POWER LACKING FOR ROCKETS

Houston relying heavily on its starting lineup isn’t all that surprising. After all, it includes dynamic scorers James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

And while they have had their share of injuries this season and have still managed to win games, the loss of Eric Gordon is going to really hurt this team both short- and long-term. 

Gordon will be out for six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. 

He wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well before the injury, but here’s the thing: When you look at their depth, which is very thin, Gordon was the one player you could see being able to carry that second unit and make them a lot more respectable, scoring-wise. 

Now, Houston will struggle to get much production out a bench brigade that ranks among the league’s worst in most statistical categories.

Look for the Rockets — off to a nice start to the season — to come down to earth soon. 

SO, UH, HOW'S IT GOING, DAD?

Having his son Austin as a player in the NBA is sure to create some memorable moments for Doc Rivers but, uh, this is probably not what he had in mind. 

Austin, a Rockets guard, was watching his dad, the Clippers coach, in a heated argument with official Tony Brothers and motioned for the official to hit his dad with a technical foul.

Austin got his wish, with Rivers picking up the tech and later being ejected with Austin motioning towards him to “call me.”

Can’t wait to see what Austin’s getting in his Christmas stocking this year. 

Revenge, after all, is a dish best served coal; uh, I mean cold. 

DEMAR DEROZAN HEADING BACK TO THE EAST?

With so much of the season left to be played, trade talk has been relatively low key thus far. But one name we will see early and often is San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan. 

Acquired by the Spurs last year as part of the Kawhi Leonard trade with Toronto, DeRozan can opt out of the final year of his contract after this season and become an unrestricted free agent. 

The last thing the Spurs would want to see is DeRozan walk and get nothing in return.

The Orlando Magic have been rumored as a possible team to target DeRozan, but there’s another Southeast Division squad to keep an eye on as it relates to DeRozan — the Atlanta Hawks. 

Trae Young and John Collins are central parts of their core, but they could benefit from a battle-tested, savvy veteran.

And if you are the Spurs looking to reload around promising youngsters Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, along with veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills still around, there’s the chance to put together a package with Atlanta that nets them a combination of young and experienced wings from a Hawks team where nearly half their roster is wing players (Cam Reddish; Kevin Huerter; De’Andre Hunter; DeAndre’ Bembry; ex-Celtic Evan Turner; Allen Crabbe and Chandler Parsons). 

FAST BREAKS

• Jimmy Butler has gotten a ton of credit for the Miami Heat’s surprisingly strong start. Still, the key to their early success has been their depth. According to hoopsstats.com, the Heat are averaging 44.6 points per game from their bench,  which is tops in the Eastern Conference and third overall. ...

• We all need friends in our life like Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who has seemingly never met a person he didn’t have something nice to say about. Take LeBron James, who is no stranger to unsolicited praise. There’s praise, and then there’s Kerr saying the four-time league MVP is “probably the best athlete to ever walk this planet.” I wonder how Kerr’s ex-teammate Michael Jordan feels about that. ...

• Philly’s Joel Embiid is a card-carrying member of the “load management” club, but he’s not the only Sixers player taking some time off. Ex-Celtic Al Horford was a healthy scratch in Philly’s 98-97 win over Cleveland earlier this week. “I mean, it's an issue we're dealing with in today's NBA, I guess,” Horford told reporters. “I don't think five or 10 years ago, we'd be talking about these things. But it's something that is being done, and they're looking out for our health throughout the season.” ...

• Some of the early favorites for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award include Boston’s Brad Stevens; Utah’s Quin Snyder; Phoenix’s Monty Williams; Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel; and Minnesota’s Ryan Saunders.

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Warriors, which tips off Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.


 

A. Sherrod Blakely's NBA Power Rankings: Youth on the rise

A. Sherrod Blakely's NBA Power Rankings: Youth on the rise

BOSTON -- Luka Doncic has played like a legit MVP candidate for the Dallas Mavericks. 

Jayson Tatum of the Celtics and Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks have looked and played the parts of legit All-Stars. 

When you start to take a closer look at the top teams on the rise, there’s an undeniable youthfulness about them with many being led by players who are just a few years removed from high school. 

Half of the NBA’s top 10 scorers this season are 25 or younger, led by Milwaukee’s 24-year-old reigning league MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

And the top rebounders? 

Yup. Half of them are in the 25-and-under boat as well, with Antetokounmpo and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis both ranked among the top three in rebounds per game. 

And four of the league’s top eight assists leaders are also part of the 25-and-under youth movement with 20-year-old Doncic leading the pack. 

While the NBA still has its veteran stalwarts such as LeBron James and James Harden proving they are firmly entrenched as elite talents in the NBA, don’t look now … the youngsters are coming!

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Warriors, which tips off Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.