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.
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.