Celtics

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.

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Celtics have entered the elite contender group chat

Celtics have entered the elite contender group chat

Well, hello there, Boston Celtics.

After seven inconsistent performances down in Orlando, the Celtics asserted themselves — and loudly, too — as a legitimate title contender with a dominant 122-100 thumping of the previously bubble unbeaten Toronto Raptors.

There is always a danger in overreacting to a single game but this was no fluke. The Celtics simply displayed their full potential and on both ends of the court.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Sunday at 4 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The ball whizzed around the floor with an extra focus on ball movement leading to 16 3-point makes. The Celtics shuffled their feet and guarded with purpose, limiting the Raptors to 57 points through three quarters while Boston’s lead ballooned as high as 40.

"This game will mean nothing if we (see the Raptors again)," Stevens cautioned after his team’s win. We’d counter that it probably would not have mattered if the Raptors were clicking on most of their cylinders because of the way the Celtics played for much of the night.

The Celtics put seven players in double figures and had an offensive rating north of 120 early in the fourth quarter before Stevens fetched the starters. That’s an absurd number when you consider the Raptors had limited teams to 96.1 points per 100 possessions through their first three seeding games.

While quality teams like the Lakers and Heat struggled to generate offense against Toronto, the Celtics made every extra pass, sprayed the ball around to open shooters, and knocked down open looks.

A Raptors team that has routinely challenged teams to shoot corner 3-pointers watched Boston scorch from that spot. Boston made a staggering 10 of 15 attempts from the corners, with everyone including big man Daniel Theis having success there.

"I think the biggest thing is that, when the ball doesn’t stick, we’re pretty good,” said Stevens. "We really had a large emphasis on that. Not only tonight but the other night as well. We've got to keep sharing it and keep making plays for others. Our players are really good, they’re going to draw a lot of help, when they do, it’s just a matter of making the right read and doing that over and over.”

Or as Jayson Tatum underscored it: "Guys got some easy, open looks and I think that opened the game up for us.”

As good as Boston’s offense was, the defense was even better. And considering the poor showing on that side of the ball to this point of bubble play, that was maybe even more encouraging than the offense.

Yes, the Raptors missed some shots but Boston didn’t give them much easy. Toronto mustered only 12 first-quarter points as the Celtics played with ratcheted-up defensive intensity throughout the first half.

Boston needs to bottle up this defense moving forward.

"I saw something, we were like the last team or one of the last teams in defense in the bubble, and that’s just kind of unacceptable for us with the elite defenders we have on this team and just collectively, our identity, who we want to be,” said Tatum.

"We have to take more pride in that. I think today was a good step in the right direction but we’ve got to continue to get back to who we are and guard how we normally do.”

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Stevens tightened up his rotation but went back to second-year center Robert Williams as his first big off the bench. He was rewarded with 11 minutes, 27 seconds of solid play, with Williams putting up 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting with four rebounds. He was much more disciplined in his coverages and again offered hope that he can be a bit of an X-factor for the Celtics if needed in certain matchups.

Brad Wanamaker added 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting off the Boston bench as the team didn’t throttle down with reserves on the court. Heck, Marcus Smart was 1-of-8 shooting and STILL finished plus-19 in 24 minutes of action.

The Raptors had been the darling of NBA pundits in recent days. Their early bubble domination had prognosticators suggesting they might be more dangerous than Milwaukee, which isn’t an outrageous suggestion considering Toronto’s talent and the experience gained last season.

The Celtics sent notice to the league that they plan to be in that hunt for the East crown. Despite what Stevens suggested, shellacking the Raptors like that — and finishing 3-1 in the season series — has to help a little bit should these teams see each other again in the East semifinals.

The Celtics finally showed the type of team they can be. Now they must bottle it up and take it into the postseason. The Boston team we’d seen in early seeding games wasn’t consistent enough, or defensively stout enough, to hang around very long.

The team we saw Friday night absolutely can get comfy inside that bubble.

Celtics vs. Raptors Overreactions: C's defense is ready for the big stage

Celtics vs. Raptors Overreactions: C's defense is ready for the big stage

The Boston Celtics made a big-time statement on Friday night, dominating the Toronto Raptors in every facet of the game in their 122-100 victory.

Jaylen Brown led the C's with 20 points and Jayson Tatum chipped in with 18 of his own. Kemba Walker added 17 points and four assists in his 23 minutes.

Here are three instant overreactions to Boston's impressive performance, which brings its record to 46-23:

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Sunday at 4 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

1. The Celtics have figured it out on defense.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

The 122-100 final score does not do the Celtics' defense justice. It was sensational in this game, and it proved the defense's performance vs. Brooklyn wasn't simply the result of playing against a bad team.

Boston's defense struggled through the first few games in the Orlando bubble, but the last couple of contests have shown what this unit is capable of come playoff time. After all, it's been one of the best defensive units in the league for the majority of the 2019-20 season.

The Celtics will need more defensive performances like this one down the stretch if they're to beat Toronto, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia in the postseason, and Friday night's game proved they're capable of making it happen.

2. Robert Williams is a game-changer.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Am I aboard the Timelord hype train? You bet I am. And you should be too.

It didn't quite match his enormous night vs. the Nets, but Robert Williams still made his presence felt vs. Toronto. The second-year big man had 10 points and four rebounds in 11 minutes while contributing to the Celtics' lockdown defensive effort.

It's time to get Williams into the rotation on a more consistent basis.

3. Celtics proved they can beat Raptors in a playoff series.

Verdict: Overreaction

This was an extremely encouraging all-around performance from the Celtics. C's fans should be confident going toe-to-toe with anyone come playoff time, and that includes the Raptors.

But as great as this win was, Boston can't get complacent. Toronto remains one of the scariest potential playoff matchups with their lockdown defense. It wasn't on display in this game, but it will be if these two teams meet up for a seven-game set.

Be inspired by what you saw from the C's on Friday night, but don't expect the same kind of dominance if/when these teams face off again. The tables can turn in a heartbeat.