Can Jayson Tatum Get on Jimmy Butler’s Level?

Jayson Tatum moved like a man at ease in the first half of Game 1 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals. After spending seven games staring down Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez at the basket, the Celtics All-Star seemed to relish the opportunity to attack a Heat defense that, while excellent, doesn’t boast nearly as much size along the back line. Time and again, Tatum caught the ball on the perimeter and drove hard, secure in the belief that he could beat whichever Miami defender he’d drawn to the paint.

With Marcus Smart sidelined by the mid-foot sprain he suffered late in Game 7 against Milwaukee and Al Horford a surprise scratch after entering the NBA’s COVID-19 health-and-safety protocols, Boston needed Tatum to be every ounce as brilliant Tuesday as he was in outdueling Kevin Durant and Giannis. Through two quarters, he delivered: 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting, five assists, four rebounds, a steal, a block, and a handful of other excellent defensive plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. The C’s entered intermission with an eight-point lead because they’d had the best player on the floor—one who looked free, confident, and comfortable.

The thing is, though, they play two halves in the NBA. And Erik Spoelstra’s team came out of the locker room hell-bent on ensuring that, whatever else Tatum and the rest of the Celtics experienced the rest of Game 1, “comfortable” would no longer be an appropriate adjective to describe it.

“It’s crazy, because [Spoelstra] doesn’t have to say too much,” Heat superstar Jimmy Butler told reporters after the game. “We already knew what we were doing wrong—turning the ball over, not getting back. So he talked about it, and we came out and was like, ‘You know what, we are at home, we have to play better basketball. We have to play better as a team.’ We did that. Went on a little run.”

OK, not that little—more like a 22-2 avalanche that completely flipped Game 1, knocking the visiting C’s on their heels and putting the Heat on the path to a 118-107 win. At the heart of it all, as has been the case throughout this postseason, was Butler, who scored 11 points, drew four fouls, and snared two steals leading to runout baskets in that dominant six-and-a-half-minute span. As Spoelstra later told reporters, “Jimmy just really inspired everybody.”

For Butler, inspiration tends to manifest as perspiration; like his old boss in Chicago and Minnesota, he finds the magic in the work. The Heat didn’t panic after trailing by as many as 13 in the second quarter and heading into halftime behind with Tatum looking like God’s gift in kelly green. They just kept grinding, identifying specific pain points for a Celtics team forced by the absences of two starters to play a jumbled and wafer-thin rotation, and pressing on them as hard as possible until they began to buckle.

For all the grumbling about whether Smart’s a True Floor General, he is Boston’s point guard; he trails only Tatum in touches per game and time of possession in the playoffs, and is the player most frequently responsible for bringing the ball up and getting the Celtics into their sets. Horford’s a patient and poised connector, capable of keeping the ball moving and out of the hands of the opposition, with the Celtics’ second-best postseason assist-to-turnover ratio. Without the two steady veterans, head coach Ime Udoka had to rely more heavily on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to initiate possessions and create; they’ve made strides as ball handlers and playmakers, but the combination of persistent Heat ball pressure and some lackadaisical deliveries led to a whopping eight third-quarter turnovers from Boston’s star wings. Six of them belonged to Tatum, who crashed hard after playing all but 73 seconds of the first half less than two days after wrapping up a seven-game series in which he averaged 41 minutes per game. He went 1-for-7 from the field with just one assist in the second half.

Those turnovers helped fuel Miami’s fast-break game—1.33 points per transition play in Game 1, according to Cleaning the Glass, right in line with the Heat’s best-in-the-NBA full-season mark—which, in turn, helped open up the floodgates on Miami’s half-court offense. (Said Bam Adebayo after the game: “The rim just becomes an ocean when you start running in transition.”) Easy looks always do, which is why the other downstream effect of Smart’s absence—Udoka giving 30 minutes of run to Payton Pritchard, the next guard up after Derrick White moved into Smart’s starting spot—became such a problem for Boston.

Butler ruthlessly hunted Pritchard whenever he was on the floor, particularly in the fourth quarter, calling up his man to set screens to ensure the 6-foot-1 sophomore was in the action and repeatedly hammering the mismatch:

When Miami needed to tighten the screws defensively, there was Butler to crank up the pressure and create the turnovers that short-circuited a Boston offense that had been humming before halftime. When Miami needed points in the third—first to cut into the Celtics’ lead, and then later to stop a 9-0 Celtics run that had them back within three after the big 22-2 explosion—there was Butler to bulldoze his way into the paint, draw contact, and get himself to the line. “I like physicality,” Butler said after the game. “Like, I want to run into people and see who falls down first—who is going to quit first.”

When Miami needed baskets to put the game on ice, there was Butler, scoring or assisting on 16 of the Heat’s final 22 points in the final eight and a half minutes to secure the W. And when anyone needed a reminder that there are two players in this series with a legitimate claim to be its best player …

… there was Butler, putting some tidy punctuation at the end of yet another phenomenal performance: 41 points on 12-for-19 shooting from the field and 17-for-18 from the line to go with nine rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocks in 41 massive minutes.

“Every time and pocket in the game when we needed to control the game, or get the right shot, or make the right decision, Jimmy had his fingerprints on that. … If you’re driven by competition, and the stakes get raised, you’re going to raise your level of play,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not about trying to get bigger numbers. It’s about doing what’s required.”

That’s a level Tatum can reach, as evidenced by his Game 6 masterpiece against Giannis and his gangbusters opening half Tuesday. It’s one he’ll have to reach more consistently from here on out, though, because it appears to be the only one Jimmy—now averaging 29.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.3 steals per game in the postseason on 54/35/83 shooting splits, which, even though it’s not about that, are some pretty big friggin’ numbers—is operating at right now.

What’s required of Boston now is to accentuate the positive—there was lots of chatter postgame about how the C’s won the first, second, and fourth quarters, meaning they’d have been in great shape had they not gotten annihilated by 25 in the third—and to hopefully get as healthy and recharged as quickly as possible.

Getting Smart back on the court would get Pritchard off it, removing Butler’s most fertile hunting ground, and ease the ballhandling pressure on Tatum and Brown. Getting Horford back would add another credible frontcourt shooter and playmaker to occupy Adebayo, who was a monster in the middle in the second half, and reduce Udoka’s reliance on the non-shooting Daniel Theis and Grant Williams, who followed up his Game 7 heroics by attempting just two 3-pointers and picking up five personal fouls. When Boston gets those guys back—and especially if the C’s can keep Robert Williams III on the court and wreaking two-way havoc—this series will look entirely different.

The Heat already have one in the bank, though, plus home-court advantage for Game 7 if it comes to that. Horford’s likely to remain in COVID protocols through Game 2. Smart’s status remains up in the air, as well. Udoka said before the game that the Defensive Player of the Year’s foot was still too sore and swollen to do anything more than “limited basketball movements.”

If neither Smart nor Horford can go on Thursday, then Tatum and Brown will have to be better than they were in Game 1. And if they don’t have more in the gas tank than they did the first time around after playing 44 and 43 minutes, respectively, then Butler, Bam, and the rest of the Heat and the gang might already be halfway to the Finals before the full-strength Celtics ever get the chance to share the court.

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