SAN FRANCISCO – It’s just basketball.

Celtics coach Ime Udoka recalls being on the sidelines for the NBA Finals nearly a decade ago, as an assistant coach for a Spurs team whose ball movement and defensive acumen have made them one of the most popular teams of their generation. What he took away from those battles and passed on to his players who were making their own final debuts was that they need to venture into this new territory and be themselves.

“It’s just basketball,” Udoka said. “It’s all the little things that win and lose a series. Obviously, Golden State is a team that will make you pay if you have any missteps so far. So for us, try to keep it simple, keep it simple with our guys and go back to basics. Playing defense at a high level, sharing the ball offensively – none of that changes because we’re in the final now.

As the third quarter of Game 1 slipped away from the Celtics on Thursday, they found themselves in familiar but uncharted territory. They made returns. They won games in the heat of the playoffs when the deficit seemed insurmountable. It was the Finals, it was Steph Curry and the Dynasty Warriors, but it was still just basketball.

“The message at the start of the fourth was: We’ve been here before. We know what it takes to overcome a deficit like that,” Tatum said. “Obviously they’re a great team. It won’t be easy. But just knowing that we’ve been in this situation before and we’ve gotten out of it. We had plenty of time left, didn’t we? Now was not the time to bow your head or be done with it; it was time to understand.

For Tatum to eventually flourish, he needed Jaylen Brown to break through. Brown created the first 14 points of the fourth quarter, burying a few absurd isolation shots before finally sneaking into the lane to find Rob Williams for the alley-oop. As Brown and Derrick White pushed the pace of makes, misses and steals and the Warriors defense began to fall back on their heels, the lead was gone within minutes.

As Tatum moved up and down the floor watching the return unfold around him, he never imposed himself on the flow of the game. The ball would swing in his direction and he would move it. He continued to contest shots in defense and then sprint into corners to lead the break. When he put the ball into the paint in transition with just under five minutes left, he didn’t even think to force a shot. Instead, he kicked a trailing Al Horford to bury the 3 and take the Celtics’ first two-possession lead. In the end, they won 120-108 and now lead the series.

It’s the kind of game management that Tatum’s coach, Drew Hanlen, has been preaching to him since last summer.

“I think the most important thing is the advice that Michael Jordan gave to Kobe Bryant: at the end of the day, the only thing people are going to judge you on is whether you do the job or not,” he said. said Hanlen. Athleticism after the game. Whereas now it’s more about reading what the defense gives him, making the right play, not forcing shots, not taking ‘my turn’ shots and really involving everyone.

The way Tatum treats the game evolved throughout the playoffs as he faced perhaps his toughest test to find the shot of his career. Crunchtime has become less about getting at its spots than finding where they exist on the ground and using them. He has already received enough recognition for his talent; the only thing left to prove is that it can promote victory.

That’s why when the Celtics tied the game at 103 midway through the fourth period, he didn’t just try to slow things down and take control, like he would have done in the past. He didn’t feel the need to leave his mark on the game by finally hitting a shot. His team ran out, as they had done throughout their run. He spotted White in the corner and called for the ball so he could throw it right away. Two assists later, Horford hit the 3 to regain the lead, and the Celtics never looked back.

“Teams that win in the playoffs are all about player movement and ball movement,” Hanlen said. “The thing that I think JT has grown into so much is that instead of chasing buckets, he chases by making good plays, which has led to his assists at an all-time high.”

Tatum finished with more points than assists, but his 13 cents on his Finals debut finished one ahead of John Stockton, Isiah Thomas and Jordan for the NBA record.

Tatum was a plus-27 in the fourth quarter and he didn’t even score. He created 38 points on his passes alone in Game 1, per Synergy. Of his 13 assists, only one was for a shot inside the arc.

On Thursday, the Celtics became the first team to win a Finals game by double digits after entering the fourth quarter in double digits, according to ESPN. Although Brown and Tatum went a combined 3-for-13 from deep, the Celtics became the third team to hit at least half of their 3-for-at-least 40 attempts in Finals history, per Stathead. The supporting cast went to 64.2% from deep, which is remarkable given valid concerns earlier in the season that the team didn’t have enough shooting around its two stars to win a title. , not to mention a playoff.

Boston doesn’t get to this point without White suddenly becoming a knocked-down shooter since welcoming a baby in the last round. Horford always finds a way to make an outsized impact, and Marcus Smart has been at his best when he can walk. But the pieces of a champion revolve around their stars, and that’s what the organization prepared Brown and Tatum for.

“The whole year leading up to that, we’ve kind of groomed and prepared Jayson for those times when teams are going to grab you so hard they’re trying to get you out of the game,” Smart said. “For us, it’s just to make sure he stays confident and knows that even though they’re doing a good job on you, you’re still who you are and we’ve got your back. That’s for that’s why we’re here, to help you in times like this, to get you started.

Although Tatum has spent more than a decade training with Hanlen to build his game, Udoka has been the one who has been with him every day this season, working long hours to help him become a leader. Tatum made no secret how much the All-NBA snub bothered him last season and knew he had to be a winner if he was to make it to the first team this year. Udoka was going to put the ball in his hands even more, and it was up to him to honor that responsibility.

“I think that was kind of his day one message, just to challenge me to be the best player I can be and improve other areas of my game,” Tatum said of Udoka. “We watched a lot of movies throughout the games season – just areas, things that I could improve on. You know, obviously playing games was one of them. Attract a lot of attention. Just help the team as much as possible.

When the Celtics came into the final minutes of Game 1 with a double-digit lead, there was still that nagging fear that the offense would stagnate as Boston tried to slow down time and Curry would bring the Warriors back to it. That’s when Tatum came into his two-man game with Smart, prompting the Warriors to hit him so he could comfortably get off the ball and give Smart all the room he needed to put the game on. in bed.

“I love his growth and progression in those areas, where he always keeps defensive, always involves others, doesn’t pout about his shots. And trying to play through some mistakes and physicals, they were playing with him,” Udoka said. “When they box-and-1 him to try and get him out, it made it difficult at times, but that’s why we’re a team. We don’t rely on just one guy. You have seen others speak tonight.

Brown and White drove the Celtics to the finish line, then Tatum took them through. They did not take turns but rode the wave that lifted all of Boston’s ships. When Brown got the ball back on a defensive rebound, Tatum escaped to the corner to clear the way and start the ball moving. When White walked into the paint and drew a crowd, he moved to an empty spot in the corner for Brown to jump onto the couch and bury the shot.

“We are battle tested. We have been through a lot. We have had many experiences, many losses. We know what it takes to win,” Brown said. “I give credit to every guy in this locker room, top to bottom. We have a great and resilient group. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

In the past, scoring 12 points would make Tatum look like a pretty gigantic weak link. It happened a few times in the playoffs, where everything was a struggle and the frustration boiled over. He had a frustrated foul on Draymond Green in the first half but then spoke with his game the rest of the way. So when asked after the game how he felt about having such a bad scoring night, he didn’t care.

“Ecstatic, right? Forty points in the fourth quarter? JB played big. Al, Payton (Pritchard), D-White. These guys made some big shots – timely shots too. And we won, right? Tatum said. “I had a bad night filming. I just tried to impact the game in other ways. We’re in the league. We’re in the final. All I was worried about was trying to win, and we did. That’s all that matters at this point.

“So I don’t expect to shoot so badly again. But if it means we keep winning, I’ll take it.

At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was getting the job done.

(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)


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