How the Boston Celtics finally unleashed Jayson Tatum in Game 3

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three
Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three / Jason Miller/GettyImages

Welcome back, Jayson Tatum. Boston Celtics fans missed this version of you. 

The version of you that scored an NBA record 51 points in a Game 7 last season and dropped 46 points in an elimination game on the road two years ago. The version of you that can take this Celtics team over the hump and finally raise Banner 18.

That version of Tatum was on full display in Game 3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The All-NBA forward led Boston to a 106-93 road win as Tatum finished the night with 33 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists. His 25 shot attempts marked his most since March 25 against the Atlanta Hawks.

While many NBA fans and media members prepared for Game 3 with half-baked narratives surrounding Tatum’s toughness, there was a simple fix the Celtics needed to get their superstar back on track. They needed to get him the ball a lot more.

For the first time in these playoffs, the Celtics did just that. They ran their offense through their best player all night long, and it worked.

Who would have thought? 

From the opening tip, the Celtics made a clear effort to get the ball in Tatum’s hands at the top of the key. After averaging a 26.7% usage rate through his first seven playoff games, Tatum boasted a 40.0% usage rate en route to his best game of the postseason so far. The five-time All-Star sacrificed touches and shot attempts all season long, but he still had a 30.1% usage rate across 74 regular-season games.

While the Celtics have many players who can put the ball on the floor and create good looks for the offense, nobody does it as well as Tatum. At six-foot-10, Tatum is a walking mismatch for most of his defenders. He put all of his abilities on full display, carving up the Cavs' defense with a healthy mix of interior scoring and playmaking.

Tatum also played impeccable defense all night long, switching onto players at all five positions (including some nice defensive work on Evan Mobley in the post) and showcasing his versatility as an elite point-of-action defender and help defender.

While Tatum bounced back in a big way, he only hit two 3-pointers all night. He can still improve his play moving forward, which is scary to think about for Boston’s fellow contenders.

In his postgame press conference, Tatum addressed the media’s recent criticisms of his scoring struggles.

"I wouldn’t say I’d take it as disrespect. I don’t always agree with what they say. Maybe I feel like they’re not watching everything else that I’m doing, but that’s not my job to focus on that or give it any attention. My job is to be the best player that I can be for our team on any given night … as long as we win and we’re trending in the right direction, I know me scoring will come… I just try to impact the game in other ways, dominate the game and not be defined as just a scorer."

Jayson Tatum

When the Boston Celtics unlock Jayson Tatum, they also unlock Jaylen Brown

Unleashing Tatum as the primary ball handler also paved the way for a Jaylen Brown masterclass. Brown scored 28 points on 13/17 shooting, finding great looks in the flow of the offense all night long.

When the Celtics give Tatum the keys and embrace his ability to command an offense, nobody excels in their role better than Brown does. Brown perfectly complimented Tatum as an off-ball maestro with world-class scoring abilities, thriving in transition and picking his spots perfectly. The three-time All-Star has also held opponents to 30.2% shooting from beyond the arc in these playoffs, showcasing why many fans believe he deserves an All-Defensive selection this season.

For many years, people argued that Tatum and Brown could not coexist on the Celtics. After 11 playoff series won together and nearly 100 playoff games played together, the Jays have developed one of the best partnerships in the sport. The dynamic duo only has one goal left to accomplish now: an NBA title.

For a player whose leadership has been scrutinized by the media lately, Tatum received significant praise from his teammates for how he led the Celtics on both ends of the floor.

Al Horford talked to Abby Chin of NBC Sports Boston about Tatum’s leadership after the victory.

"JT challenged us at halftime to make sure that we were more assertive and got off to a good start in the third … JT is a special player, he always figures it out. He’s the last guy I worry about, so he’s gonna be fine. He has been doing this for a long time now."

Al Horford

With his performance, Tatum joined Horford as one of only 14 players in NBA history to rank in the all-time Top 100 for playoff points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and 3-pointers. Tatum and Horford are in elite company with the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant also occupying the list.

In his postgame presser, Jrue Holiday lauded Tatum for his brilliant defensive performance. Holiday put together his strongest outing of the postseason with 18 points, eight boards, and five dimes.

"JT is always gonna be JT on the offensive end, but I think defensively he did a great job. Got some key stops, some nice blocks, some big rebounds … We trust him so much on the offensive end, but defensively is really where I'm so impressed by him because I don't think he gets enough credit on the defensive end."

Jrue Holiday

Although the Celtics dominated all year with their multitude of scoring options and two-way threats, no two players hold more importance to this team than Tatum and Brown. Even with Kristaps Porzingis on the sidelines, the Celtics have all the ingredients to dominate Cleveland for the rest of the series. They just need to trust Tatum and Brown to lead the way.

Tatum said it best after the game.

"We have a really great team, but we know we only go as far as us two go."

Jayson Tatum