Brad Stevens inserted Aron Baynes into his starting five for Game 5, but that was not the only successful tweak the head coach made to his gameplan on Wednesday night.
After watching his offense go ice cold over the past two games in the first quarter, Stevens wasn’t going to let that happen again with his best scoring weapon watching from the bench.
For the first four games of the Eastern Conference Finals, Jayson Tatum was the first sub of the game for the Celtics, at some point between the 5-7 minute mark of the first quarter. During Game 5, Stevens abandoned that plan. For the first time all postseason, Tatum was the only Celtic who played the entire first quarter.
“I just talked to Coach,” Tatum said after scoring a team-high 24 points. “I knew I was going to play a little bit more in the first quarter, just to look to be more aggressive. Coach trusts that I'm going to make the right play, whether it's scoring or just finding guys out at the pick-and-rolls and just making the right decision.”
Stevens’ faith in the 20-year-old was rewarded almost immediately, as the Celtics built a 13-point lead in the opening frame that they never relinquished on their way to 96-83 win over the Cavs in Game 5. Yet, the offense of Tatum (24 points on 7-of-15 field goals, 7-of-8 free throws) did not tell the entire story of Tatum’s performance. Instead, it was his contributions in all aspects of the game that made him the best player on the floor on Wednesday night despite facing off against LeBron James.
The Duke product didn’t come into the NBA with much of a reputation as a defender. In fact, it was one of the areas that was considered a knock against him during the pre-draft process. Scouts figured he was a little bit too slow to handle speedy wings and didn’t have enough bulk to handle bigger forwards in the post. Yet, the Celtics had the best defense in the NBA this year and Tatum was the only player on the roster to start 80 of those games during the regular season. Tatum had a lot of help, but his defense was a part of that equation and the value within it was on full display in Game 5.
A closer look at Tatum's coming-out party on Wednesday night: