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Why Jayson Tatum was so good in the fourth quarter of Game 4




Celtics

“I always believe the next shot gonna go in, and just my teammates believe in me.”

Jayson Tatum
Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum during the second half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series. AP Photo/Morry Gash

For much of their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup, the Bucks have kept Celtics star Jayson Tatum stymied, culminating in a 4-for-19 Game 3 performance that left Tatum deeply frustrated with himself.

“I was just really eager to get back and ready to play,” Tatum said on Monday. “Whether it was scoring or not, just coming out and just playing better on both ends of the floor. …

“So I was just really eager for the game to start following Game 3.”

Tatum didn’t follow up the worst performance of his playoff career in Game 3 with a LeBron-James-in-Game-6 masterpiece — 45 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists on 73.1 shooting — but he did drop 30 points on 24 shots.

Importantly, Tatum salvaged his evening in the fourth quarter as the Celtics rallied from seven points down to claim a 116-108 victory with 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting as well as two assists — both part of Al Horford’s barrage of 3-pointers. In other words, he had a hand in 18 of the Celtics’ 43 fourth-quarter points, all of which were badly needed. 

“We found some actions that we liked for him and then some isolations where we don’t always bring the screen, we feel he can beat his man,” Ime Udoka said afterward. “Give him a little bit more space to operate. He got downhill, got aggressive, and started knocking down the 3s. What he’s been doing all year.”

So what changed in the fourth? Perhaps predictably, Tatum got himself going by driving to the basket, then stepped behind the arc to make a 3. 

Tatum’s first shot of the game was a pick-and-roll 3, which might not have even hit the rim as it caromed off the backboard — an ugly start. He then leaked out in transition for a huge dunk on Brook Lopez, bounced in a mid-range jumper, and buried a spot-up 3-pointer. Pieces were falling into place for a big night. 

The next four shots, however, were all 3-pointers and all misses — seemingly less because of the defense and more because his footwork never looked comfortable. He sprinkled in a few more makes in the third but entered the fourth ice-cold after missing four in a row. 

The Celtics were down seven and circling the drain. 

“We felt like we didn’t play that well, and despite all that, we were only down seven to start the fourth,” Tatum said. “And that was the message — 12 minutes left, down seven. Figure it out.”

Horford figured it out first and helped the Celtics even the score, but Tatum was just as instrumental in the final six minutes. With 6:15 remaining, he turned the corner on Wesley Matthews even though Al Horford missed the screen and scooped in a heavily contested layup that tied the game. A minute later, he drove and dismissed Matthews directly into Pat Connaughton, and both players tumbled into Derrick White — a three-pin strike for Tatum, who scored the layup. On the next possession, the Bucks let George Hill get switched onto Tatum, who drove into Hill and finished plus the foul.

A minute later, Tatum rose up for three over Hill, who timed the contest perfectly but was too short to do anything about the shot.

“I still had 12 minutes left to put my mark on this game and try to help us win,” Tatum said. “I’m a big believer in good or bad, whatever just happened, you can’t change it, even through the course of a game. Everybody talks about next play, next quarter. I always believe the next shot gonna go in, and just my teammates believe in me. They want me to be aggressive and they trust I’m going to make the right play, and that’s what I was trying to do.”

During the postseason, an odd regular-season trend has amplified: Tatum is shooting extremely poorly on pick-and-roll 3-point attempts, but in isolation and spot-up opportunities, he’s deadly. To that end, per the NBA’s stats, Tatum has an effective field-goal percentage (a stat that takes into account the added value of 3-pointers) of 56.8 percent in isolation since the playoffs started, and he’s scoring a staggering 1.3 points per possession in spot-up opportunities. 

The numbers go a little deeper: On zero dribbles, Tatum is shooting 56 percent from deep. On 7+ dribbles, he’s shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. Any other number of dribbles, and he has been a disaster (7-for-31, 22.5 percent).

In other words, Tatum has been great from three off the catch and great when he does stuff like this

The counters in Game 5 will be fascinating. The Bucks now know that George Hill can’t switch onto Tatum (like, at all), so they will work something else out when the Celtics force a switch. Tatum now knows that Matthews — who stymied him in Game 3 — can’t consistently stay in front if Tatum goes at him aggressively. Lopez and Antetokounmpo are a challenge at the rim, but a solvable one — particularly if Robert Williams is back in the mix after sitting in Game 4 with knee soreness. The Bucks know they can win in Boston, but the Celtics went small and played well against the Bucks’ bigger groups.

Each playoff game is its own entity, but the Celtics may hold a schematic edge in Game 5, especially given that their superstar looked like a superstar again at a very opportune time.

Tatum didn’t re-write his legacy in Game 4, but he and the Celtics held serve, and now he has another chance to do so in Game 5.





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