Marcus Smart’s absurd fourth-quarter 3-point barrage is obviously the main storyline from the Boston Celtics’ Game 2 triumph over the Toronto Raptors, but go back and watch tape of how Smart’s fuse was lit and you’ll find a common thread in the first three long-distance makes.
They were all assisted by Jayson Tatum.
On a night where Tatum finished with a playoff career-high 34 points and on a night when he got to the free-throw line a playoff career-high 14 times, it was Tatum’s playoff career-high six assists that might have changed the complexion of Tuesday’s game and helped Boston escape with a 102-99 win.
Let’s go to the tape:
With the Celtics down eight early in the fourth quarter, Tatum broke out in transition after a Daniel Theis block. Instead of trying to force up a tough shot over two retreating Toronto defenders, Tatum heard Smart calling for the ball while trailing and pitched it back for a wide-open look.
Next trip down, Tatum came off a screen from Theis and, with two defenders in front of him, and three more spying his advances, Tatum delivered a cross-court fastball that whizzed over Fred VanVleet’s head with enough steam to allow Smart to get off another clean look.
Tatum drew another crowd on Boston’s ensuing possession and, as soon as VanVleet cheated his way, he flipped the ball to Smart on the other side of the floor. VanVleet actually did a nice job scrambling back and Smart had to take a one-dribble side-step before splashing his third triple in 73 seconds.
Brad Stevens talked after the game about how the Celtics implored Tatum to make quick decisions during Tuesday’s game. That helped put Tatum in attack mode and aided him in piling up free-throw attempts when Toronto was too aggressive trying to stop his drives.
"They’re a great defensive team, so you can’t dance and play with the ball,” said Tatum. "They’ve got good defenders and they play great team defense, so you’ve just got to make quick decisions and play with some pace."
Tatum finished with four of Boston’s six assists in the final frame. While his scoring prowess is often spotlighted, it’s the complete nature of Tatum’s game that has pushed him to a new echelon among Eastern Conference stars.
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Tatum is turning into the complete package. As defenses make it a priority to try to slow him down, Tatum is making better reads and more often spraying the ball to teammates for open looks.
Tatum, with a hefty usage rate this postseason, has seen his assist percentage spike. Tatum got a little sloppy with the ball on Tuesday night but his turnover percentage has plummeted compared to his early playoff appearances.
The Celtics own an offensive rating of 115.7 when Tatum is on the court in the postseason (and a team-best net rating of plus-17.5 overall, among regulars). Those numbers plummet to an offensive rating of 108.2 with a net rating of minus-0.6 when Tatum is off the court.
On a night where Kemba Walker struggled early and before Smart caught fire, Tatum carried Boston’s offense. He probed around the court early, making a tough fadeaway over Marc Gasol in a low-clock situation, but it was the pull-up 3-pointer that was his weapon of choice.
In the third quarter, exasperated with Kyle Lowry’s pestering defense, including hounding him through a Robert Williams screen, Tatum backed out, shot the referee a frustrated glance, then raced off another Williams screen before burying another pull-up 3-pointer.
With Boston down 10 late in the third quarter, Tatum tiptoed through Serge Ibaka and VanVleet on a baseline drive before banking home a reverse layup.
Despite all the whistles that went his way, Tatum’s most notable referee interaction came when got hit with a technical with 70 seconds to play in a four-point game for punching the air. This after being whistled for an offensive foul on a pull-up at the elbow that might have otherwise iced the game.
Tatum atoned, Stevens said, by playing solid defense on Toronto’s last possession. When VanVleet pulled up from the left wing on the Raptors’ final gasp at the buzzer, Tatum stopped himself near the 3-point line and contested a shot that quickly morphed into an off-the-mark rainbow from VanVleet.
“We talked about [the technical]. They made the right call,” said Tatum. "It’s the playoffs; guys playing hard, playing with a lot of emotion. Sometimes it’s hard to control that and they gave me the tech. It was the right call and you gotta move on.”
That was about the only time Tatum let his emotions get the best of him. He was otherwise in control of Tuesday’s game. Tatum impacted the box score well beyond his 34 points and especially with his playmaking.
The Celtics’ rally might have never got going if Tatum didn’t play his part in getting Smart hot.