When the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to be their new head coach last summer, he wasted little time setting expectations for the team's star players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. During an interview with "Jalen & Jacoby" in August, he put the onus on those two to make everyone around them better.
"We have multiple handlers. We have multiple playmakers," Udoka said. "That's an area where we need to see growth with Jaylen and Jayson. It's not just scoring the basketball. It's those guys initiating the offense and being better playmakers. That's the next step in their evolution."
Easier said than done, of course, and this season was not always a smooth ride. But Udoka had a vision of what this team could look like when those two fully embraced their playmaking abilities; it came to life on Thursday night. Tatum went 3-of-17 from the field, and the duo combined for just 36 points, yet the Celtics won a Finals game on the road by double digits.
Even a few months ago that wouldn't have been possible, but instead of resorting to hero ball or getting frustrated and trying to play through a crowd, Tatum and Brown took what the defense offered and made the right play time and time again. Together they combined for more assists (18) than made baskets (13) and had just six turnovers.
Brown was spectacular in the fourth quarter as he led the Celtics' comeback. With Tatum's shot abandoning him, Brown took over and either scored or assisted on 20 of their first 23 points in the frame. The Celtics do not win if he doesn't put the team on his back for that initial six-minute stretch.
But without trying to discount Brown's heroics, the way Tatum picked apart the Warriors' defense and made a major impact on the game despite having his least efficient shooting performance of the playoffs was the most encouraging aspect for the Celtics.
Tatum is the one who will have the ball in his hands the majority of the time, and Tatum is the one the Warriors are scheming to stop. It's on him to set the tone, and he did just that in Game 1. You aren't going to make shots every night, but you can always control your approach; Tatum's was right on the money on Thursday. His 13 assists were a career-high, and also the most for any player in their Finals debut.
"Yeah, I think that was kind of [Udoka's] message from day one, just to challenge me to be the best player that I can be and improve other areas of my game," Tatum said. "We watched a lot of film throughout the course of the season of games, just areas, things I could improve on. You know, obviously, play-making was one. Drawing a lot of attention. Just help the team out as much as possible."
Tatum drew plenty of attention in Game 1. The Warriors were face-guarding him off the ball, and when he did get it in his hands, all eyes were on him. If he looked to drive, help defenders were shading over as soon as possible. Instead of trying to force the action, Tatum used the Warriors' aggressiveness against them by making early passes.
He rarely got stuck in a crowd, and only had two turnovers because he got rid of the ball before the defense could fully collapse. In fact, the timing on his passes was so sharp that he often caught the Warriors' help defenders with their weight and momentum shifted towards him, giving them no chance to recover to the perimeter.
Here's a great example from the end of the first quarter. Tatum comes off a screen and gets Steph Curry on a switch, so the Warriors are alert to help. Otto Porter Jr. instinctually shifts down towards the paint to try and cut off a drive, but Tatum reads that and makes the pass right away. The ball is already in the air as Porter is trying to get set, and that gives the Celtics the advantage. Pritchard attacks Porter's late closeout, swings it to Grant Williams who can now attack Andre Iguodala's late closeout (which was very bad), and all of a sudden Derrick White has a wide-open 3.
Tatum doesn't even get a hockey assist for that one, but his willingness to move the ball and make the right play paid off.
Same thing in the second quarter. This time, Tatum comes off a screen and is going downhill at Jordan Poole, so Draymond Green and Iguodala slide over. Tatum senses the danger and immediately whips the ball to the corner before he even hits the paint, taking all the help defenders out of the play. Daniel Theis is left all alone and buries the 3.
Let's show one more example, this time from the third quarter. Again, a pick-and-roll gets Tatum a chance to attack Looney. He gets a step on him to the baseline, and Green is over in a flash to cut off the drive. Only, there never is a drive because Tatum has already thrown the ball cross-court to Marcus Smart. The Warriors are left scrambling, and Al Horford winds up with a practice-level 3 from the corner.
"All year leading up to this we've been kind of grooming and preparing Jayson for these moments where teams are going to key in on you so much that they try to take you out of the game," Smart said. "You have to be able to make plays and affect the game in different ways. Tonight he had 13 assists. We've preached that all year. He's had a lot of practice at it."
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Turning Tatum into a surefire playmaker has been a year-long odyssey for Udoka and the Celtics, and the hard work paid off in Game 1. The series is far from over, but the balance has shifted in the Celtics' favor, in large part due to Tatum's ability to control the offense even without scoring.
In addition to taking a 1-0 lead -- the team that wins Game 1 has won the Finals 71 percent of the time -- and stealing homecourt, the Celtics have put the Warriors on their back foot and forced them to respond. Now, the Warriors have to decide whether they want to stay the course or adjust how they defend Tatum.
Do they continue to show so all sorts of help and dare other players to beat them? Perhaps, but the Celtics are shooting 40 percent on wide-open 3s (closest defender six-plus feet away) and 37.9 percent on open 3s (closest four-to-six feet away) in the playoffs. Their 37.8 percent clip from 3 overall is second only to the Mavericks during the postseason, and they have made 20-plus 3s four times in 19 games. Sure, maybe Al Horford and Derrick White don't combine for 11 again, but they might if you continue to leave them wide open.
Or do the Warriors stay home on the Celtics' shooters and let Tatum, who has blossomed into one of the best scorers in the league, have more space? A risky proposition considering that while Tatum is prone to going ice cold at times, as he did in Game 1, he always bounces back. In the first three rounds, Tatum failed to reach 20 points three times. In the proceeding games, he averaged 33.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
Either way, the onus is now on the Warriors to make a tough decision. Tatum showed in Game 1 that he'll be ready for whatever comes his way.
"His playmaking has gotten better steadily. Tonight it was just brilliant," Horford said. "Offensively he didn't really get it going scoring-wise, but then he was finding guys. He was reading the defense. It just shows his growth. Even from earlier in the year, he just has continued to get better. He's the kind of guy that he's going to figure it out. One way or another, he's going to figure it out. We put a lot on him and he delivers. That's what he does."