BOSTON -- If the Boston Celtics are to complete a historic comeback against the Miami Heat, Jayson Tatum needs to be great. And while the natural instinct is to think that boils down to Tatum’s scoring, his biggest imprint might ultimately come from deterring Jimmy Butler from doing the same.
Tatum’s defensive intensity can vacillate as much as anything with these roller coaster Celtics. But when he’s engaged and active on that end of the floor, the Celtics are a far more dangerous team. As Boston has ratcheted up its defense over the past two games, breathing life into a series that seemed all but over, it’s Tatum's ability to make Butler hunt different matchups that has been key in bottling up Miami’s offense.
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Tatum’s impact is far more noticeable with the eyeball test than any of the already imperfect defensive metrics that exist. When Butler finds Tatum as his primary defender, he often works quickly to generate a switch and rarely elects to attack the basket -- or at least without the same vigor as, say, when the smaller Derrick White is matched up on him.
The Celtics have thrown just about everyone on their roster at Butler but have had their best success when one of their big wings -- Tatum or Jaylen Brown -- have been his primary defender. Butler is far more likely to attack a smaller guard or try to get Robert Williams III in the air on pump fakes than challenge Tatum.
The NBA’s tracking data suggests Tatum has been the primary defender on Butler for nearly a third of Butler’s total offensive floor time. Over 28-plus minutes of matchup time and 121 total possessions, Butler has generated a mere 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting with five assists and three turnovers.
In 56 minutes and 246 total possessions against any other defender, Butler has generated 113 points on 48-of-97 shooting with 29 assists and 11 turnovers.
Tatum isn’t some sort of lockdown defender against Butler. No one is. But the data seems to suggest that he’s far more likely to move the ball when Tatum is the primary defender.
Tatum spent his least amount of time of the series defending Butler during Thursday’s Game 5, but the lopsided score might have contributed to that. Tatum dominated that game with both his scoring and his playmaking.
But in Game 6, and if the Celtics are lucky enough to see Game 7, there are going to be moments when Boston will need Tatum to take on the challenge of defending Butler and ensure he doesn’t take over. One of these games is going to be close at the finish line -- that’s usually Jimmy Time -- and Boston might need Tatum to be the one who refuses to let Butler win another game with his crunch-time play.
So much of this series boils down to shot-making, but the most jarring difference in Boston’s play over the last two games has been its defensive intensity.
The Celtics spent the final two quarters of Game 4 and the start of Game 5 absolutely swarming the Heat. Boston has watched its "stocks" soar with 16 steals/blocks in Game 4 and 17 more in Game 5. That defense has led to easier offense and taken some strain off Tatum to carry the team in half-court sets.
It was Tatum’s offense that carried Boston in Games 6 and 7 against the Sixers while staving off elimination in the second round. The Celtics might need him to put up loud numbers again to complete a historic comeback.
But it’s what Tatum does to set the defensive tone that might ultimately determine if Boston is the first team in NBA history to complete a comeback from being down 0-3.