Jayson Tatum hit the big shots, but defense from the rookies mattered most

(Andy Marlin/USA Today Sports)

BROOKLYN -- Most of the headlines that Jayson Tatum will get following Saturday's 87-85 win over the Nets will come because of these two plays in the closing seconds.

Both shots were impressive but, as Kyrie Irving put it, the 19-year-old has reached a level on the offensive end where that kind of production is expected when he's open.

"He's supposed to (hit those shots)," Irving said with a laugh when asked about Tatum's game-winning 3-pointer with 45 seconds remaining. "He better make it. Wide open in the corner. Rookie or not, (laughs) you better make the shot."

It capped off a relatively ordinary night for Tatum from a production standpoint on the offensive end: 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting. Instead, it was the rest of his box score that should stand out to Celtics fans after Boston's sixth straight win: a career-high six blocks and three steals. Tatum joined Kevin Garnett as the only rookie teenagers to post at least six blocks and three steals in a game during their rookie year.

Tatum's stellar defense set the tone on a night where the Celtics needed every stop to pull out a win. The 19-year-old is obviously well ahead of the curve with his shooting and scoring ability, but his defense was supposed to be a weakness coming out of Duke. Instead, the 6-foot-8 forward used his length to bother the Nets wings all night, helping to limit the hosts to 33 percent shooting. All of this on a night when arguably the Celtics best defender (Al Horford) watched from the sidelines with a sore knee.

"I think everybody had to push through," Tatum explained. "It was a tough, physical game. We've played well as a team. Focus on defense."

While Tatum may not be known for his defense, a couple other rookies at the end of the Celtics bench are becoming more recognized for their contributions on that end. Daniel Theis manned center for most of the third quarter with Aron Baynes saddled with foul trouble, and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds in just 19 minutes while anchoring the middle. The 25-year-old has been the best Celtics rebounder on both ends all year long and his mobility helped to keep the Celtics back line elite without Horford.

Fellow rookie Semi Ojeleye was the odd-man out of the rotation for the first 40 minutes of the game, but entered the game at the eight-minute mark of the fourth quarter and played all but a few seconds of crunch time, delivering a pair of crucial contests on the game's final two possessions.

"You never check out of the game," Ojeleye told BostonSportsJournal.com about staying ready late. "It's not the first time (Brad's) done that. He's always playing a game of chess. You always try to know what's going on and try to do what you practiced."

"Semi Ojeleye coming in and having those two verticality plays late is huge," Brad Stevens explained of the move. "Especially being way undersized at the 5 (center), basically. But it gives us the opportunity to switch everything. Spencer Dinwiddie was hurting us off the dribble and at that time you want to be able to switch to guard the 3-point line because obviously those are killers. Especially on that last possession, I’d rather Spencer drive it and be around the rim instead of shooting a three when we are up by two.”

To have a second-round pick who is just 6-foot-7 play center in that situation and make a couple game-clinching plays is quite a luxury for Stevens. Ojeleye recognized the need to be physical late and serve as an undersized rim protector in that spot.

"It's tough," Ojeleye said of his play at center. "There's a lot of great guys in this league. You try to just be instinctual, be in front when you can. It's a team effort on defense."

“It was like playing kind of throw-up in football," Irving added, of the game's physicality. "That’s what it really was. You have one person gathering the ball and everybody just trying to tackle that one person. I felt like that’s what we were playing down the stretch. At one point there were just so many bodies on the floor the last few possessions. So like I said it’s just a learning experience on that end but you just try to be very aggressive and be smart and understanding the way the game's being called. I felt like we did a great job of adjusting.”

When all was said and done, the Celtics limited the Nets to 79 points per 100 possessions, one of their best defensive performances on the season. The Celtics also held the Nets to 85 points during the game, the third consecutive game they held a team to a season-low point total. The fact that this group was able to maintain that kind of elite defense is a tribute to Stevens and the team's young talent in the frontcourt. Tatum, Theis and Ojeleye all stepped up and the Celtics will be a happy team heading to London because of it. They'll also be a top-tier defensive unit for years to come.