June 23, 2024

Challenge to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s ‘sacred’ partnership fuels Celtics’ Game 2 win

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics knew what Jason Kidd was doing. It was a slick move, but they’ve seen it before.

During his news conference Saturday, the Dallas Mavericks coach said Jaylen Brown is the best player on the Celtics. Naturally, Jayson Tatum was asked about it, and he did not fall into the trap.

“We have all played a part in getting to where we’re at and we understand that people try to drive a wedge between us. I guess it’s a smart thing to do or try to do,” Tatum said Saturday. “We’ve been in this position for many years of guys trying to divide us and say that one of us should be traded or one is better than the other. So it’s not our first time at (the) rodeo.”

Heading into Game 2 of the NBA Finals, they faced a familiar scene. Two years ago, Tatum’s playmaking carried the Celtics to a Game 1 win, then the Golden State Warriors ran away with the title from there.

Kidd’s gambit appeared to be an attempt to disrupt the harmony Brown and Tatum have found leading Boston’s offense, all while the Mavericks are still trying to find theirs. He wanted to replicate what Golden State did the last time Tatum was in the finals, surrounding him with bodies and trying to get him to shoot his way through it.

Then Brown and Tatum combined for 19 assists as the Celtics took a 2-0 series lead.

“We’re so close to what we’re trying to accomplish,” Tatum said after they beat the Mavericks 105-98. “Why would I let my ego or my need to score all the points get in the way of that?”

Through all the noise, Brown and Tatum haven’t changed how they play. These are the same rim reads and the same shot selection they would show in a random January game, only under significantly more defensive pressure.

Yet, they have no problem passing to each other or whoever else is open.

“How they play together and how they work together is something that is sacred and something that can’t be broken,” teammate Jrue Holiday said.

Tatum finished with 12 assists, one short of the career high he set in that Game 1 against the Warriors. Tatum said his commitment to playmaking has a lot to do with how that series played out, how being there before and not winning forced him to change his perspective.

“There are going to be times where I need to score, and obviously, I need to shoot better. Golly,” Tatum said after shooting 6-for-22. “We always talk about, do whatever it takes for however long it takes. If I need to have 16 potential assists every single night and that’s what puts us in the best position to win and it doesn’t mean I’m the leading scorer, by all means, if that gives us the best chance to win, sign me up.”

This game exemplified how Tatum and Brown have taken attention from the defense as a challenge to move the ball rather than dominate it. In the Celtics’ egalitarian offense, that ball always comes back around.

“I’m really tired of hearing about one guy or this guy or that guy and everybody trying to make it out to be anything other than Celtic basketball,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said. “Everybody that stepped on that court today made winning plays on both ends of the floor. (That) is the most important thing.”

The coach praised Tatum for solving the different puzzles he faces each night, scrutinizing the shape of each defensive scheme to pressure its weak points.

The core of Boston’s offensive game plan was for Tatum to draw doubles in the post and find cutters, often Holiday, on the back side. The Mavericks had their center come double Tatum, and Dallas would have the other defenders form a wall around the paint to prevent a kick-out pass to a shooter. But that would leave room for Holiday to snake his way into the paint.

“Every time I’d take a couple dribbles, there was, like, three people right there,” Tatum said. “They kept leaving Jrue open, so it wasn’t like I had to do anything spectacular. It was just about finding the open guy.”

Holiday made an effort to stay within the line of vision whenever Tatum or Brown was driving so they were always aware of each other’s spacing once the defense collapsed. It often made it look like Holiday was tearing the defense apart, but it traced back to the Jays beating Mavericks defenders off the dribble or establishing deep post position.

“I don’t think I’m shredding the defense. I think it’s more so JT and JB,” Holiday said. “Especially tonight, JT was getting into the paint and being double-teamed and making the right plays out of it and just finding me. Just either being at the dunker (spot) or being in the corner. He has that vision as a playmaker, so I would give that to them.”

It was fitting Holiday was the primary benefactor of their passing, since he was the one Celtic who inadvertently took the bait on Kidd’s ruse. In an interview with SiriusXM on Saturday, Holiday was informed of Kidd’s praise for Brown and said, “I don’t think he’s lying.”

It appeared Holiday agreed with the substance of Kidd’s praise rather than the specific ranking, but the quote spread heading into Game 2. So when Holiday was at the microphone in front of the media after scoring a team-high 26 points, most of which were gift-wrapped for him by Tatum and Brown, he opened with a clarification.

“So just to address the comment yesterday, I do not prefer one or the other. I prefer both,” Holiday said. “Both of them are superstars, and it’s being shown out here on the biggest stage in the world. Questions, please.”

Holiday said that when he was traded to Boston, Tatum was the first player to text him.

“Jayson makes greatness look easy,” Mazzulla said. “He’s a tremendous player and not hard to coach him. When he has the ability to affect the game in different ways, we’re a different team. But it takes everybody to do it. That should answer everyone’s question.”

Brown’s team or Tatum’s team, it hasn’t mattered this year. They complement each other in a way that they couldn’t when they reached the NBA Finals last time. They didn’t have the passing vision or the defensive prowess.

It took losing in the finals to make it clear that making the right play, and understanding what that means on each possession, is what works in the end.

“At the end of the day, this is their team,” Holiday said. “I know it’s probably just as much my team as theirs. … The pressure that they have on themselves to execute and to be great is a little bit different than my pressure. I’ve always been honest about that, and how they always handle themselves has been something that’s been so honorable.”

It all leads to nights like this, where neither of them is the leading scorer, and it’s exactly why they won.

(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)