Jayson Tatum has come a loooooooong way since that follow-back request, man.
The 20-year-old forward turned in the most impressive game of what’s been a tremendous first run through the NBA playoffs, scoring 24 points with seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks to lead the Boston Celtics to a 96-83 win over LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 on Wednesday. All-Star center Al Horford added 15 points with 12 rebounds, muscling his way through the defense of Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love to get to the basket and delivering the dagger on a pick-and-pop 3-pointer from the top of the key that put Boston up by 17 with 3:53 to go, as the C’s remained perfect at home in the 2018 postseason, moving to 10-0 at TD Garden.
Jaylen Brown battled through a cold shooting night by pushing the pace in transition and attacking the rim at every turn, scoring 17 points with three rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. Ditto for Terry Rozier, who missed 12 straight shots at one point and finished 3-for-15 for his eight points, but who kept helping on the glass and running the team without forcing things, racking up six rebounds, six assists and three steals with one turnover in 34 minutes.
Reserves Marcus Morris (13 points, six rebounds, more solid defense on LeBron) and Marcus Smart (13 points, a found money 3-for-6 from 3-point land, four rebounds, four assists) gave Boston precisely the second-unit punch they largely lacked in Cleveland, helping get the Celtics — operating without All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, relying so heavily on so much young talent — within one win of the NBA Finals.
Playing with confidence and aggression in front of the home crowd, Tatum torched J.R. Smith and the rest of Cleveland’s perimeter defenders time and again. He pulled up in rhythm from behind the 3-point line and used his quickness and handle to get to the rim and to the foul line, scoring nine points in the first quarter to help stake Boston to a lead it would never relinquish and putting himself on the path to producing the ninth 20-point game of his first postseason.
That helped him climb into some rarefied air among freshman playoff scorers:
Tatum also deployed his length to make his presence felt on the defensive end, helping a Celtics team fresh off two dire performances in Cleveland in Games 3 and 4 limit the Cavs to 41.9 percent shooting and a 9-for-34 mark from 3-point range. That combination — Tatum taking the offensive reins, the Horford-led defense making the Cavs stutter, Cleveland’s shooters missing a lot of the kind of looks they drilled at home — put LeBron on the brink of elimination for the second time this postseason:
The last time his back was against the wall, LeBron went for 45-8-7 to turn back the Indiana Pacers. If he’s going to produce the same sort of effort to stave off elimination in Friday’s Game 6, though, he’ll have to dig deeper than he seemed capable of doing on Wednesday.
James led the way for Cleveland, scoring a team-high 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting with 10 rebounds, five assists and a steal in 39 minutes. But he also committed six more turnovers — that’s 29 in five games in this series — and at multiple points looked flat-out exhausted. He said after the game that while he “had [his] moments” of fatigue, he generally felt “fine” in Game 5 … even if it didn’t look like it, whether you were on your couch or on the Cavs’ bench.
With James unable to seize control of the game and bending it to its will the way he did in the Cavs’ series-leveling wins at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs needed someone else to step into the void and create. Outside of a solid start by Kevin Love (who’d finish with 14 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in 31 minutes), nobody else did.
Smith turned in another dud, scoring two points on 1-for-6 shooting with five fouls in 26 minutes. Save for a couple of aggressive possessions late in the second quarter, point guard George Hill (seven points, 1-for-5 shooting, two assists, a rebound and a block) was whisper-quiet in his 30 minutes. The never-shy Jordan Clarkson got up 10 shots in 15 minutes off the bench; he missed seven of them, made just one after halftime, and came up empty on consecutive good looks from the right corner when the Cavs had cut the deficit to 12 midway through the fourth quarter.
Clarkson also played a role in the sequence that effectively ended any pretense of the Cavs getting back into the game following a 9-0 run in the final period. After a missed layup by LeBron, Clarkson raced in from the 3-point arc to crash the offensive glass, looking for a putback dunk. He didn’t get it, leaving both he and James deep in the paint and giving Boston numbers going the other way on a fast-break that ended with Rozier lofting a lob for a big Horford alley-oop that ended a string of nine straight scoreless possessions and put Boston back up by 14:
It was Boston that actually struggled most from the field, shooting just 31-for-85 (36.5 percent) as a team. But it was Cleveland that repeatedly seemed unable to generate any positive momentum on the offensive end … and for that, coach Tyronn Lue will wear some goat horns after this one.
After Cleveland steamrolled the Celtics in Games 3 and 4 with a super-sized lineup featuring Thompson at center alongside Love and James, his counterpart, Boston’s Brad Stevens, changed his lineup by moving Morris to the bench in favor of center Aron Baynes. The additional size changed the matchups, forcing Thompson to deal with the burlier Baynes on the offensive end and allowing Stevens to deploy another big to help bail out Rozier whenever LeBron tried to orchestrate switches to terrorize him, as he did in Game 4.
The move paid off, as Baynes played well, contributing six points with seven rebounds and three blocks in 29 minutes while largely neutralizing Thompson (just one points and six rebounds, only one on the offensive glass, in 26 minutes). And yet, with Thompson ineffective and Cleveland struggling to score, Lue never tried to shift the terms of engagement south by running out the Love-at-center lineups that torched the Toronto Raptors in Round 2, preferring instead to stay big with either Thompson or Larry Nance Jr. for the bulk of the contest.
With the Cavs offense wilting and the Celtics building a double-digit lead late in the first quarter, many observers began to wonder: where was Kyle Korver? The 37-year-old marksman has been one of Cleveland’s three best players in this series, averaging 11 points in 22.5 minutes per game through Game 4 while shooting a blistering 57.7 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from the 3-point line, often sparking the Cavs’ attack during the brief stretches when LeBron sat down. And yet, the entire first quarter passed without Korver playing; he played only eight minutes in the first half; he saw just two minutes of tick in the third quarter, as the Celtics’ lead ballooned to 17.
Was he hurt? Well, no: according to Lue, the issue was that Stevens had taken away his safe defensive hiding spot by tightening his rotation and parking second-round pick Semi Ojeleye on the bench.
It’s true that Cleveland has looked to pair Korver with Ojeleye when possible. According to NBA.com’s matchup data, Korver defended the SMU product on 44 possessions through the first four games, his second-most frequent assignment after Brown. But it’s not like they’ve been attached at the hip; only 31 of Korver’s 90 minutes through the first four games had come with Ojeleye on the floor, and most of Ojeleye’s minutes have come in garbage time. His absence from the game probably shouldn’t have frazzled Lue into pocketing his third-best player; “thrown for a loop” or no, the onus would seem to be on Cleveland’s coach to respond sooner.
A punchless Cavs offense seemed to beg for the threat of Korver’s shot-making to open up more driving lanes or potentially force Boston’s on-a-string defense to snap in rotation, creating chances for others to get cleaner looks. But Lue never quite got his rotation back in line, as Korver would finish with just seven points on 2-for-6 shooting in 18 1/2 minutes of floor time, and Cleveland would muster just 83 points in a Game 5 that would be the difference between going home with a chance to close out and go to a fourth straight Finals, and needing to win consecutive closeout games to avoid elimination. With the exception of a second-quarter spurt kickstarted by a scuffle between Nance Jr. and Morris …
… that turned into a 12-3 Cleveland run fueled by Nance’s two-way energy and 3s by Korver and Clarkson, the Cavs looked perfectly content to sleepwalk their way through Wednesday night. Reminder: It was Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
A postseason during which the C’s have gone just 1-6 away from the Garden suggests that the Cavs will have an opportunity to extend this series to a winner-take-all Game 7, but they’ll need better answers than what Lue, LeBron and the rotation managed on Wednesday. With their backs against the wall, they need something they can bank on. History tells us that, in a must-win elimination game, they’ll be able to count on LeBron.
“We’re looking forward to having an opportunity to force a Game 7,” James said during his post-game press conference. “It’s up to us to see if we can come back here for one more.”
Can Cleveland bank on anything else, though? Well, we’ve been wondering about that since October, and after 98 games, a midseason roster renovation, an opening-round scare, a second-round sweep and a Game 5 dud, we’re still wondering. If LeBron, Lue and the rest of the crew can’t find answers between now and Friday night, the entire Cavaliers organization could find itself facing the biggest question the NBA has to offer, and Boston could be headed for its first Finals berth since 2010 … thanks in part to a 20-year-old from St. Louis who’s looking awful comfortable going from looking for a follow to seizing the chance to lead.