With 2:25 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Boston Celtics up four on the Philadelphia 76ers, Jayson Tatum leaped through the air to snag a Terry Rozier lob in transition. After flushing it down a mere seconds later, a cheek-to-cheek grin came across Tatum’s face. If you had done what he had just done to the Sixers in Game 2, you’d be smiling, too.
All told, Tatum finished with 21 points on 7-of-14 (50 percent) shooting in Game 2, capping off an exhilarating 22-point comeback win over the Sixers to push the Celtics to a 2-0 series lead with the series shifting back to Philadelphia in Games 3 and 4.
It appears the brief moments of hesitation that held Tatum back during his rookie season are gone now in the playoffs. He’s playing free and loose, providing the Celtics a dimension they haven’t had since Paul Pierce was working his magic at the elbow. That might be a stretch, but the point still stands: in his first nine career playoff games, Tatum is averaging 17.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and Thursday night marked his fourth consecutive 20+ point performance.
To the well-informed NBA fan, Tatum’s rapid transformation – from a wide-eyed 19-year-old rookie in October, to now a featured scorer and clutch playoff threat – is a testament to coaching. Since he got the job in 2013-14, player development has been a cog to Boston’s Brad Stevens. He’s taken a myriad of players from various backgrounds, new and old, to heights not possible throughout his five-year coaching career. The long list starts with the likes of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Isaiah Thomas, and goes all the way down to Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown.
Throughout the NBA regular season, a great coach can earn his team wins merely by having his players prepared. With less time between games, coaches don’t have the ability to game plan for each opponent, so they rely on the system and making on the fly adjustments.
This is a stark contrast in the playoffs, though, where this such advantage evens out. Everyone has more time, so even an inferior coach has enough time to piece together a reasonable strategy. Where a great coach and a great player stands out, however, is their ability to make adjustments, not only from game to game but within the game itself.
In Game 1, Stevens had his team prepared to attack Philadelphia’s matchups from the jump, spacing the floor and placing Rozier and Al Horford in the corners and Aron Baynes in the weakside post. As you’ll see here, Tatum catches Smart’s pass on the right wing and immediately attacks J.J. Redick off the bounce. Redick already gives up a substantial amount of size and speed to Tatum, and this shows as Tatum blows by him to the rim, drawing an and-1 on Joel Embiid. Earlier this season, Tatum would have tried to find another player or would have attempted a floater over the 7-footer. Having adjusted his game, he makes the smart play in the game’s opening minutes.
Once again, Stevens sees a matchup that he feels gives him an advantage. Coming out of a sideline out of bounds play, Tatum is paired up with Marco Belinelli, who has a similar built to Redick. Rozier screens for Horford, but this isn’t what Boston really wants. Horford catches the inbound from Tatum but immediately hands it back to him. Again, Tatum shows no hesitation. He gets Belinelli all crossed up and, with no rim protector in the game for Philly, connects on an easy layup.
Tatum is rolling now, and the only way the Sixers attempt to slow him down is to try and deny him the ball. Remember earlier when I said Stevens would bleed a matchup or a set he likes until the opponents stop it? In this case, Stevens pinpointed the edge Tatum had over Redick and Belinelli early on and kept driving it down the Sixers’ throat.
Here, Horford is on the left wing with Tatum coming up from the baseline. Because Horford is hanging out on the perimeter, Embiid can’t leave him to protect the paint. Redick is also in hard denial mode because he hasn’t been able to stop Tatum one-on-one all game. This hurts Redick, because as he overplays the designed hand-off, Tatum back-cuts him. By the time Tatum catches the ball, there isn’t even a single Sixer in the paint to challenge him.
In Game 2, Philadelphia’s defense did a better job matching up size-for-size. Unlike in Game 1, there were few instances where Tatum was switched onto the smaller Redick or Belinelli. Instead, Sixers’ coach Brett Brown gave the more agile and compact Robert Covington the assignment of covering Tatum. Mind you, Covington finished in the top 5 in Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares in the regular season, so he is far and away Philadelphia’s best on-ball defender.
And yet, he couldn’t handle Tatum. In this beautiful sequence, Tatum catches an Aron Baynes hand-off and attacks down-hill. Thanks to a Baynes screen on Covington, this allows space for Tatum to operate, and as soon as he gets the first-step, it’s an easy two points for Boston.
This time, Stevens uses Tatum as a decoy on the perimeter. As you can see, Ben Simmons smothers Rozier on the left-side of the court, negating any penetration or an open shot. Frankly, this was perfect defense from the Sixers for 19 seconds… until it wasn’t.
As you’ll see, Covington is too focused on playing the ball and not his man, which is Tatum. He over-helps too much on Rozier, and this leaves Tatum wide open for three.
Basketball is a game of adjustments. Tatum has done wonders making plays happen on the fly, and this last play was no exception. Here, Tatum is shaded deep in the corner with mild pressure applied by Covington. Once again, Covington commits to Rozier for a split second too late. He is too slow to react on the pass from Rozier and is caught flat-footed. Tatum punishes this mistake by driving past him for an uncontested baseline jam.
In full, every playoff series is all about adjustments. It’s not always as simple as Coach X adjusted better throughout the flow of the game better than Coach Y did. But as Games 1 and 2 indicated, that was exactly what happened. Stevens made adjustments, and so far, Brett Brown has yet to catch up and pose a successful counter.
Through it all, however, the Celtics have benefitted from 20-year-old Tatum, who continues to play beyond his years. As Philadelphia looks to get themselves back in this series at home, Boston will try to place a stranglehold on this series using one their brightest stars.