Jayson Tatum’s Buzzer-Beater Was A Masterpiece Of Teamwork
8:59 AM EDT on April 18, 2022
Really, to even identify the shot in question as "Jayson Tatum's buzzer-beater" is a misattribution of credit. The Boston Celtics won Game 1 of what looks like an all-time first round series thanks to a buzzer-beating layup from Tatum, though where the majority of buzzer-beaters tend to be triumphs of pure individual talent (Damian Lillard against the Thunder in 2019) or right-place, right-time interventions after one-on-one plays don't work out (Metta World Peace against the Suns in 2010) the Celtics engineered Tatum's winner on the fly and as a collective, without the benefit of a timeout.
What stands out here, aside from the guy spinning at full speed and dropping it right into the cup at the horn, is the patience Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart show. Brown could have backed down Goran Dragic or taken a reasonably open elbow jumper, and once Smart got the rock and head-faked two Nets into the ionosphere, he had an open lane to what would probably turn out to be contested left-handed shot near the rim. All of those are fine options, maybe even better than fine, as each player faced those options with fewer than 10 seconds on the clock. It makes a ton of sense to hoist the first good shot you can create in a situation like this, as it leaves the door open for a tip-in or a foul. But Brown and Smart waited, trusted their teammates, and Tatum made a perfectly timed cut. Brown broke down the Nets defense with his canny movement, drawing two defenders, then forcing two others to help off of him, clearing the way for the scramble that forced the Nets to over-rotate towards Smart. Kevin Durant was thus stranded out on the perimeter, while Kyrie Irving merely matadored Tatum on his way to the bucket. The court-level view is particularly satisfying.
The Celtics stormed their way to the second seed in the East after one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds you will ever see. Some of that can be chalked up to their formidable defense, the best in the league since the all-star break, though the clearest indication of a shift has been on the other side of the court. Early in Ime Udoka's first season with the Celtics, they found themselves less than the sum of their parts, with Tatum and Brown seeming to cancel each other out rather than enhance one another. The vibes were sour, as they tumbled through players only meetings, public callouts by veteran leaders, and even Udoka questioning the mental strength of his stars, yet they still didn't click until halfway through the season. The ball would just sort of stick on offense. Then, in January, when they turned into the '96 Bulls, the Celtics started sharing the ball as well as any team in the Eastern Conference. It's a real credit to Udoka's trust in his team that he didn't call a timeout after Tatum stonewalled Kevin Durant and guaranteed the Celtics a shot at the win.
"He could have taken the pull-up, which wouldn’t have been a terrible shot, but he sees Jayson cut and makes the play," Udoka said after the game. "We’ve gotten away from the ‘your turn, my turn’ thing for the most part, and we enjoy seeing each other succeed." For his part, Smart also credited Udoka with trusting the team to keep a calm head. "I've always been told you have more time than you realize you have,'' he said.
Since we have spent the previous few paragraphs gushing about the Celtics' collective ferocity at the expense of the guy who made the game-winner, we must also consider the degree to which Tatum led them, and also how close they came to blowing it. Tatum was monstrous for Boston. He blocked both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and gave his team the chance to win by smothering Durant on the final Nets possession. His stat line is nice (31 points, four boards, and eight assists with two blocks), though he exhibited a level of control that he's shown in flashes but never maintained for an extended run until the latter half of this season. Tatum has been an all-world scorer for a couple of seasons, but his evolution as a playmaker this year has elevated his team more than anything else.
Even then, Tatum was barely enough. Brooklyn had every chance to win it after an explosive performance from Irving, who scored 18 of his 39 in the fourth and nailed a series of outrageous threes in the final frame to turn a 15-point Celtics third-quarter lead into a five-point Brooklyn lead with minutes remaining. Irving also got into a bunch with Celtics fans, showing some covert double birds, displaying an open single bird, telling off a heckler in the tunnel, and waving to the crowd after a big late three-pointer. He was lustily booed throughout the game by the Boston crowd, and he addressed the animosity afterwards.
"It's nothing new when I come into this building what it's going to be like—but it's the same energy they have for me, I'm going to have the same energy for them," he said. "And it's not every fan, I don't want to attack every fan, every Boston fan. When people start yelling 'pussy' or 'bitch' and 'fuck you' and all this stuff, there's only but so much you take as a competitor. We're the ones expected to be docile and be humble, take a humble approach, fuck that, it's the playoffs. This is what it is."
This game had pretty much everything anyone could want, and it felt like a conference finals matchup, not a 2-7 Game 1. Really, the Nets are only in the seventh seed because of their combination of bad injury luck and flair for self-immolation, and talent-wise, they're still maybe the best team in the Eastern Conference. In purely basketball terms, this looks like the best first-round series on the docket by far, but the basketball qua basketball is as good as the storylines are juicy. Remember, a Ben Simmons cameo could be coming at any moment. Strap in and pray for seven games.