Jayson Tatum emerging as a defensive star vs. 76ers

(Kim Klement/Getty Images)

On the offensive end in Game 3, it was not Jayson Tatum’s night. The All-Star battled foul trouble in the first half for the second straight game, earning three fouls by the end of the first quarter that accompanied an ugly shooting start.

Normally, Brad Stevens isn’t one to let foul trouble dictate his rotation decisions in the first half of games, but with the officials calling it tight, he couldn’t risk limiting Tatum's aggressiveness with four first half fouls. He benched him for the entire second quarter and watched as the Celtics managed to tread water without him until halftime.

Ultimately, Tatum didn’t gain much of an offensive rhythm all night after the extended rest. He finished 6-of-19 from the field and got to the free-throw line just twice. It was his first offensive stinker since the Bucks seeding games opener in Orlando and the Celtics labored offensively for much of the night without his firepower compared to the first two games of the series.

Despite the struggles, Tatum was front and center during Boston’s game-clinching 10-0 run even though he only scored one point in that stretch. On a night where Tatum didn’t have it going with his shooting touch, he turned to a different aspect of his game that showcased his long-term MVP potential: A nightmare defender for opponents of all sizes.

The Sixers failed to score a point in the final two minutes and 14 seconds of Game 3 and Tatum was the biggest reason why. A look at how his defense stymied Philadelphia in crunch time and directly led to the offense that won the series-changing Game 3 for Boston.

Play #1
Sixers lead 94-92
1:45 remaining

Marcus Smart deserves plenty of accolades for lying in the weeds and picking off a cross-court pass from Joel Embiid from the post on this play. However, Smart never gets this chance if it wasn’t for Tatum’s aggressive double team to start the chaos.

The Celtics had been sending periodic help all night Embiid’s way but Tatum saw a situation here that needed immediate action. Enes Kanter had fouled Embiid on the previous possession and Tatum did not want Embiid to start making a move before help arrives. This time, he surprised Embiid with a hard double almost immediately, using his length to throw Embiid off balance. The Sixers big man stepped through the help but did not get a good look at the floor thanks to Tatum’s pressure, leading to the ill-advised pass.

"I thought I got better at passing out of the double-teams, and it happened," Embiid said afterward. "I turned it over. That was a big mistake. That was on me. It happens, and you move on."

“It's no secret that we have to try to make it tough on Joel” Tatum explained of the Embiid doubles. “We can't leave him down there to play 1-on-1. We just have to help and make it as tough as possible and show bodies. We can't just leave him down there 1-on-1. He's a big guy and it's going to take all of us to get stops.”

Plenty of teams double team Embiid but few have had the success the Celtics have had slowing him down this series, particularly late in games. Tatum won’t get any stat in the box score for this effort but he played a big part in forcing this turnover with aggressive, smart defense.

 Play #2
Celtics lead 95-94
1:30 remaining

The world knows the Sixers are going to try to go back to Embiid again since he was the only Sixer that was hitting shots with any kind of regularity in Game 3. A pick-and-roll action with Shake Milton was defended very well initially as Kemba Walker stayed with Milton over the pick, allowing Kanter not to have to hedge too much towards Milton. The Celtics backup center (in the game after Theis fouled out), holds his ground against a driving Embiid after Milton passes it off, absorbing contact in the paint while playing straight up. From there, Embiid is forced into a tough shot falling backwards but he doesn’t see Tatum lying in the weeds. The All-Star comes up with the block clean, jumpstarting a fast break for