Last June, in the days after the The Celtics’ loss in the Finals against Golden State, Jayson Tatum went dark. Friends were unable to reach him. Neither do most of the family. His longtime trainer, Drew Hanlen, said she had never gone more than a week without at least one text from Tatum. This was longer. When Tatum finally resurfaced, he was surprised by how often he was congratulated on a successful season. Why do you congratulate me? Tatum wondered. we lost.
Nearly a year later, Tatum faced the possibility of an even darker summer. Through three quarters of Game 6 of the Celtics’ semifinal series against the 76ers, Tatum was horrible. He had six assists, picked up a pair of steals and contributed to Boston’s stingy defense. But he couldn’t make a shot. He was 1-for-13 going into the fourth quarter. He was 0-for-6 of three. While Tatum struggled, Philadelphia erased a seven-point halftime deficit and climbed to a two-point lead.
Losing in the finals was tough.
lose in this A series this team in this shape?
For Tatum, that could have been worse.
It didn’t happen. Boston beat Philadelphia 95–86 on Thursday, forcing a Game 7. In the final minutes, Tatum led the way. A 3-pointer with 4:14 left started it. Three more followed 30 seconds later. A third of three gave the Celtics an eight-point lead with just under two minutes and a fourth pushed it within 11 with 37 seconds left. After scoring three points in the first three quarters, Tatum had 16 in the quarter.
JAYSON TATUM. 3 TRIPLE CLUTCH.
THE CELTICS GO UP 8 WITH LESS THAN 2:00 TO GO.
📺: Live on ESPN pic.twitter.com/vVLWj4nEOZ
—NBA (@NBA) May 12, 2023
As the final buzzer sounded, Al Horford put an arm around Tatum at center court.
“I let him know,” Horford said, “he’s that guy.”
In six years, Tatum has been very successful. He has been to three conference finals. He has been to an NBA Finals. He has been an All-Star since his third season and on Wednesday was named a first-team All-NBA for the second straight year. But this was special. Rarely has Tatum shot so poorly. For three quarters nothing worked. Three points. uprisings. trays. All topped off.
“Being transparent,” Tatum said, “that s**t was frustrating.”
In groups, teammates offered encouragement. Horford. Smart frame. Malcolm Brogdon. They encouraged him to focus on defense. About the bounce. On finding ways to impact the game. “I know it’s not just about scoring,” Tatum said. “I kept telling myself [that] I have time to make a difference.” Jaylen Brown was particularly vocal. Keep goingBrown said. I believe in you. they can’t protect you. Stop being squeamish. In the fourth quarter, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla pulled Tatum aside and said simply, “I love you.”
“He’s always going to bounce back,” Brogdon said. “He is resilient. He is a superstar”.
While they were pushing Tatum, the Celtics were charging him. Smart scored 22 points. Brown added 17. Brogdon scored 16 off the bench. The defense limited shooting to 36.1% and just 23.5% from three. Before the game, Mazzulla changed the starting lineup, reinserting Robert Williams. The lineup of two greats was effective. Williams scored 10 points. He pulled down nine rebounds. He blocked two shots. Boston pummeled Philadelphia on the glass (50-38) and with Williams patrolling the middle kept the Sixers to 32 points in the paint.
“His presence contesting shots, altering shots, that makes all the difference,” Tatum said.
Brown said: “Defense has been the story for us.”
The Celtics kept him close. And then Tatum opened it. The first three quarters, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said, “got him going.” The latter sent what was left of a once rowdy crowd from the Wells Fargo Center rushing for the exits. “Once he gets it going,” Rivers said, “it’s hard to turn it off.”
Game 7 is Sunday in Boston, where everyone will feel the pressure. Philadelphia had a chance to advance to its first conference final in the Joel Embiid era and now must win another game on hostile territory. The Celtics temporarily saved their season, but they will need to win one more to avoid a disappointing ending. Tatum and Brown called for power inside the TD Garden on Sunday, where Tatum hopes to pick up where he left off in Philadelphia.
“I don’t want to do this shit again.” Tatum said. “Hopefully that’s a one-time thing. But if this is what it takes for us to win, I’ll go to zero for whatever it takes.”