Down 18 points with 8:25 left to go in the fourth quarter, the Boston Celtics looked done. The Oklahoma City Thunder had played a near-perfect game all night, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was completely dominant, and the Celtics could barely make a layup.
From that point on, Boston went on a 33-19 run to close the game, bringing themselves within striking distance. A game that was wholly out of reach was a two-possession contest within six minutes.
And on a night when Jaylen Brown failed to find his footing, it was Jayson Tatum who stepped up and led the team in a way he hasn’t in weeks.
For the past few weeks, Tatum’s shot selection has been called into question at times. His pull-up threes have cost the Celtics in big moments, and of the 16 players who have shot at least 100 of them this season, he’s the only one shooting below 30% (29.7%).
Against the Thunder, Tatum put his shot selection aside in favor of acting at the Celtics’ offensive hub — a role he’s shown flashes of getting back to in recent wins over the LA Clippers and Detroit Pistons but hadn’t fully recommitted to.
Rather than settling for big-swing shots early-on, Tatum found his teammates. Instead of trying to immediately pull-up from three to get in a rhythm, he let the ball find him within the flow of the offense. And when it came time for him to step up in the clutch, that’s exactly what he did.
In the fourth quarter against Oklahoma City, Tatum put up eight points, three rebounds (including two on the offensive end), and four assists while shooting 3-of-6 from the field. He consistently created space for his teammates to work and made the right read.
With just over 40 seconds left in the game, Tatum came off a brush screen from Kristaps Porzingis, got two Thunder defenders to show, and found Derrick White in the corner for a huge three.
Then, with six seconds to go, Tatum drove the lane, caused three Oklahoma City players to collapse, and found Porzingis in the corner for a long two. And if it weren’t for Porzingis’ long feet, it would have been a three to bring the Celtics within two points.
The two biggest shots of the game were made by White and Porzingis, but they were created by Tatum.
But perhaps more important was Tatum’s work on the other end of the court, as when the Celtics needed stops the most, he was the one who stepped up and guard Gilgeous-Alexander. And he did it to perfection.
Through the first three quarters of the game, Gilgeous-Alexander had 33 points on 14-of-19 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 shooting from deep.
In the fourth quarter, he didn’t make a field goal.
Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams stepped up when the Thunder needed them most, but Tatum made sure that Gilgeous-Alexander wouldn’t be the one to beat the Celtics. He was Boston’s best player on offense and on defense, and that’s not a task many superstars are capable of taking on.
Tatum got hit with a tough case of the December blues. His three-point percentage was way down from early in the season, and it felt as though his choices on offense were hurting the team at times. Tuesday night saw him flip the script.
The Celtics may have lost against the Thunder, but Tatum’s decision-making completely reverted to what it’s been when he’s at his best. He controlled the game on offense, was aggressive driving to the basket, and shut down one of the best guards in the league when it mattered most.
Regardless of the result, Tatum’s play shouldn’t go unnoticed, and it’s a great sign for the Celtics moving forward.