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Forsberg: Tatum yearns and learns from crunch-time moments

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Boston Celtics fans would probably prefer not to be chomping on their fingernails at the end of every game this season but it could be a long-term positive that this young core is being thrown into a pressure cooker on a nightly basis.

The Celtics have already played five crunch-time games (score within five points in the final five minutes) in seven contests. The team’s defense in those situations has typically been solid (a defensive rating of 90 over the league-high 23 minutes of crunch-time play). And the offensive execution peaked Sunday afternoon when the Celtics scored 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting while grinding out a 122-120 triumph over the Detroit Pistons.

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Even better for Boston: It was the star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that routinely made the right decisions during crunch time on Sunday.

Tatum assisted on two of Boston’s final five makes, including a nifty zip to Brown for a 3-pointer with 34 seconds to go after Tatum drew a crowd on a drive. Tatum also made two shots in the final minute, highlighted by a 16-foot pull-up over a stumbling Blake Griffin for the winner.

Jayson Tatum sinks the pull up jumper for the win vs the Pistons

After the game, Tatum was asked what play he liked better: The dish to Brown or the winning jumper. That’s a tough question for a player to truthfully answer but Tatum had a remarkably mature answer.

"Last game, I didn’t do a good job of hitting shots when we needed to close the game out. And that’s something I definitely want to be known for,” said Tatum. "I want to be a guy that is known for hitting big shots in those clutch situations.

 

"And just making the right read, honestly, tonight and so far this season, and knowing that I’m not really catching people off guard this year. Not as many open looks, I’m drawing a lot of attention, they’re double-teaming up to touch on the screens, so really just simply making the right read. I turn the corner, they show the double … JB was wide open. So just being mature to make the right play and finding the right guys, because that got us going.”

Tatum finished with 24 points on 10-of-22 shooting. He added eight rebounds and two blocks, both in the final 30 seconds — first swatting a Derrick Rose drive and then not letting Griffin get off a final shot. And yet the most impressive number in his stat line was a career-high 12 assists to go along with zero turnovers.

Think about that. Tatum was on the floor for nearly 37 total minutes. He entered the game averaging 73.5 touches per game. That’s a ton of time to have the ball in your hands and yet Tatum routinely made the right decisions, even as the Pistons sent multiple defenders in his direction.

For Tatum, this is another step in his evolution. Without Walker on the court, opposing teams are able to commit a lot of attention to him. Even last February and March when he was having his big breakout, teams were only just starting to send extra bodies. Even in the bubble it was Kemba Walker who got the box-and-1 treatment against Toronto.

With All-Star and All-NBA status now, Tatum is the focal point of most defensive game plans — though Jaylen Brown and his sizzling jumper are forcing teams to scheme for two — and despite the harsher spotlight he’s learning not to force his own offense.

That attention is helping Tatum’s teammates. When Griffin shuffled over a bit too much to prevent an early drive, Tatum delivered a pretty bounce pass to Daniel Theis above the free-throw line for Boston’s first field goal of the night.  Tatum went behind the back to feed Smart on a 3-pointer a short time after. He used his height to flip the ball over a trio of defenders to get Theis an open 3 — his first make from deep since opening night — midway through the first frame.

At one point in the second quarter, Tatum had all five of Detroit’s players surrounding him on a drive …

… and calmly slipped the ball baseline to Robert Williams for a dunk.

Five of Theis’ seven makes came off feeds from Tatum. Semi Ojeleye hit two of his fourth-quarter 3-pointers off dishes from Tatum. With two defenders on his tail and two more in the paint, Tatum delivered a perfect jump pass to a wide-open Brown on the right wing for a go-ahead triple with 34 seconds to go.

 

Watching Tatum and Brown embrace that spotlight — especially after they both failed to make the key shots in the first Detroit meeting two days ago — could be huge for Boston later in the season. There will be — and have been — bumps in the road but Tatum and Brown sure to be learning quickly from those moments.

"Those guys are two of the best in the NBA. They know it, we know it and everybody else in the league know it,” said Smart. "They’ve gotta act like it, and they’ve gotta have that swagger with them, and they’ve been doing that. We’re here to help each other, we’re here to pick up the slack from those guys any given night, and to help one another out.

"We’re really excited for the way those guys have been playing, not just individually but together, playing off of one another, playing off the ball, playing with the ball, making the decisions and making the right reads, and really controlling the game and they have been.”