Can Jayson Tatum reach the level of Jimmy Butler?

Jayson Tatum moved like a comfortable man in the first half of Game 1 of the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals. After spending seven games watching Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez at the basket, the Celtics All-Star have seemed to relish the opportunity to attack a Heat defense that, while excellent, doesn’t have as much size along the back line. Time and again, Tatum grabbed the ball on the perimeter and drove hard, confident he could beat any Miami defender he drew to the paint.

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

The thing is they play of them halftime in the NBA. And Erik Spoelstra’s side came out of the locker room intent on making sure that whatever Tatum and the rest of the Celtics lived through the rest of Game 1, ‘comfortable’ would no longer be an appropriate adjective to describe it. .

“It’s crazy, because [Spoelstra] doesn’t need 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 coming back. So he brought it up, and we went out and were like, ‘You know what, we’re home, we need to play better basketball. We have to play better as a team. We did it. I did a short run.

OK No that little – more like a 22-2 avalanche that completely overturned Game 1, toppling the visiting C’s on their heels and putting the Heat on the path to a 118-107 victory. At the heart of it all, as has been the case throughout these playoffs, was Butler, who scored 11 points, fouls four times and picks up two interceptions leading to burnout field goals during that dominant six-game stretch. minutes and a half. As Spoelstra later told reporters, “Jimmy really inspired everyone.”

For Butler, inspiration tends to manifest as perspiration; like his former boss in Chicago and Minnesota, he finds the magic in the work. The Heat didn’t panic after trailing up to 13 points in the second quarter and heading into halftime with Tatum looking like a godsend 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 scrambled, thin rotation, and pressing them as hard as they could until they started to buckle.

For all the grunts about whether Smart is a real floor general, he is Boston playmaker; he only trails Tatum in touches per game and time of possession in the playoffs, and is the player most often responsible for getting the ball up and putting the Celtics in their sets. Horford is a patient and balanced connector, able to keep the ball moving and out of the opponent’s hands, with the Celtics’ second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the playoffs. Without the two stable veterans, head coach Ime Udoka had to rely more on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to initiate possessions and create; they made progress as ball handlers and playmakers, but the combination of persistent Heat ball pressure and some nonchalant deliveries led to a huge third-quarter turnover from the star wings from Boston. Six of them belonged to Tatum, who crashed after playing all but 73 seconds of the first half less than two days after wrapping up a seven-game streak 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-breaking game — 1.33 points per transition play in Game 1, according to Cleaning the Glass, in line with the NBA’s best full-season mark — which, to its turn, helped open the floodgates for Miami’s half-court offense. (Bam Adebayo said 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 no Smart – Udoka giving 30 minutes of running to Payton Pritchard, the next guard after Derrick White moved into Smart’s starting spot – has become such a problem for Boston.

Butler ruthlessly chased Pritchard every time he was on the floor, especially in the fourth quarter, calling on his man to set up screens to make sure the 6-foot-1 sophomore was in the action and repeatedly hammering the lag:

When Miami had to tighten the screws defensively, there was Butler to build up the pressure and create the turnovers that shorted out a buzzing Boston offense before halftime. When Miami needed points in the third – first to take the Celtics’ lead, then later to stop a 9-0 Celtics run that had put them back in the three after the big 22-2 outburst – it there was Butler to bulldoze his way. the paint, draw the contact and get to the line. “I like the physique,” Butler said after the game. “For example, I want to meet people and see who falls first, who is going to stop first.”

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

… there was Butler, putting neat punctuation at the end of another phenomenal performance: 41 points for 12 on 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 a massive 41 minutes.

“Every time and in the game pocket when we had to control the play, or get the right shot, or make the right call, Jimmy had his fingerprints on it. … If you’re motivated by competition and the stakes go up, 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 is necessary.

It’s a Tatum level can reach, as evidenced by his Game 6 masterpiece against Giannis and his gangbusters opening Tuesday. That’s the one he’ll have to hit more regularly from now on, as he seems to be the only Jimmy – now averaging 29.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.3 steals per game in playoffs on 54/35/83 separate shots, which while not that, are a few pretty big numbers— works at right now.

What is required of Boston now is to accentuate the positive – there was a lot of talk after the game about how the C’s won the first, second and fourth quarters, which means they would have been in great shape if they hadn’t been wiped out. by 25 in the third and hopefully regain health and recharge as quickly as possible.

Putting Smart back in the field would keep Pritchard away, removing Butler’s most fertile hunting ground and easing ball-handling pressure on Tatum and Brown. Recovering Horford would add another credible front-line shooter and playmaker to keep Adebayo busy, who was a monster midway through the second half, and reduce Udoka’s reliance on Daniel Theis and Grant Williams, who don’t shoot, who followed his Game 7 heroism by attempting just two 3-pointers and picking up five personal fouls. When Boston gets those guys back — and especially if the Cs can keep Robert Williams III on the field and wreak havoc back and forth — this series will be completely different.

However, the Heat already have one in the bank, plus home court advantage for Game 7 if that happens. Horford is likely to stay within COVID protocols until game 2. Smart’s status also remains up in the air. Udoka said before the game that the Defensive Player of the Year’s foot was still too sore and swollen to do anything other than “limited basketball movements.”

If neither Smart nor Horford can go 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 had one the first time after playing 44 and 43 minutes, respectively, then Butler, Bam and the rest of the Heat and gang could already be halfway through the Finals before the full-strength Celtics ever get the chance to share the land.

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