The exhaustion of a series defined by its physicality left the two superglued there as a receiving line of teammates and coaches streamed by, excitedly shouting about the Game 7 that awaits Sunday at TD Garden.
At one point, Tatum threw his left arm around Brown and massaged his shoulders. It felt like an acknowledgment of what the pair had just accomplished by producing the defining playoff performance of The Jays era, but also an acknowledgement that they have to do it all over again Sunday.
In a season filled with leaps, this was Tatum crashing into the sand at the end of an Olympic-caliber triple jump. With Boston fighting to extend an already improbable season, Tatum traded haymakers with former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo throughout Game 6 and carried the Celtics to the finish line of a 108-95 triumph.
Depending on what happens next, Friday’s game could be an even bigger moment than it already feels like in the immediate aftermath.
After being Boston’s best player throughout a first-round sweep of the Nets, Tatum had labored in this Bucks series. His shot has been off, particularly beyond the 3-point arc, and Milwaukee’s physicality has flustered him at times. He’s looked frustrated by a lack of whistles in his favor.
But when Tatum needed to be great, he was. He finished Friday with 46 points on 17-of-32 shooting while making seven 3-pointers. Tatum added nine rebounds, four assists, and a block over nearly 43 minutes of action. The Celtics outscored Milwaukee by 21 during his court time.
"I was excited to play today,” said Tatum. “Game 6. This was like a big moment for all of us. For myself and the team just how we would respond. Losing Game 5 was going to make us or break us. I think we showed a lot of toughness and growth coming out here and getting a win on the road and just giving ourselves a chance.”
The game only confirmed what was evident earlier in the day: Tatum was locked in for this moment. He appeared to be the last Celtics player to leave Fiserv Forum after Friday’s morning shootaround, sticking around with a handful of Celtics staffers to get up extra shots before the must-have game.
Tatum’s 3-point shot carried the Celtics early and, every time Antetokounmpo and the Bucks tried to make a run in the fourth quarter, Tatum had an answer. He simply would not allow the Celtics to lose in the same way that Game 5 slipped away in Boston.
"Definitely a signature game for the Celtics and for Jayson,” said Brown.
Tatum did not do this alone. Brown had his moments, too -- like a huge 3-pointer coming out of a timeout with just over five minutes to play. The Bucks had surged within five and a Pat Connaughton reverse layup had Fiserv Forum energized again midway through the fourth frame. Tatum hit a big 3-pointer, the Celtics got a stop, and Brown pushed the lead back to double digits while the Bucks were focused on Tatum.
For all their postseason success early in their NBA journeys, this was The Jays’ signature win.
Marcus Smart, scrutinized for his decisions at the end of Game 5, was spectacular, too. He gave the Celtics an offensive jolt early with his 3-point shot and topped the team in matchup time against Antetokounmpo despite giving up at least eight inches in size. That’s why he was Defensive Player of the Year.
The Celtics put themselves in a tough spot after fumbling away Game 5. Just how much we ultimately romanticize Game 6 hinges on what happens in Game 7. But Boston gave itself a chance with one heck of a gritty effort to preserve their season.
Now, a series that deserved a seventh game gets one. The winner’s reward is flying right to Miami to dive into the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat on Tuesday.
Players are running on fumes in this series, but the Celtics seemed energized by Game 6 and the prospects of what Game 7 could bring.
"It means everything,” said Tatum. "The best atmosphere in the NBA, and Game 7s are the biggest and best games. So looking forward to it, truly. Just winning this game, giving ourselves a chance to go back, and this is it. Do or die.
"It's going to be fun. This is supposed to be fun, it's basketball, biggest moments, big stage. And what it boils down to is just going out there and having fun."