NBA playoffs: Jayson Tatum's resurrection forces a Game 7 with title odds on tilt
On the court after Jayson Tatum resurrected from an effort that could have forever stained his legacy to outscore the Philadelphia 76ers by himself in the fourth quarter, Jaylen Brown embraced his Boston Celtics co-star with a smile that belied the intensifying doubts about the long-term viability of their partnership.
The All-NBA duo lived to fight another day together, surviving a rollercoaster 95-86 victory in Philadelphia to even the Eastern Conference semifinals at three games each and force Game 7 in Boston on Mother's Day.
It cannot be understated how poorly Tatum performed through the game's first 43 minutes. Boston's 16-point first-half lead vanished by the final quarter, when Tatum was in the midst of a meltdown. A heinous transition turnover and a worse clear-path foul gifted the Sixers an 83-81 lead with six minutes remaining.
Tatum was 1-for-14 from the field when he rose up over reigning MVP Joel Embiid for a corner 3-pointer with 4:14 on the clock and his team trailing by 2. He found net for the first time since a second-quarter layup ricocheted in, and on Boston's next possession he found it again from 28 feet. He drilled two more 3s down the stretch, including the dagger in the final minute. The fourth quarter finished: Tatum 16, Sixers 13.
"I am, humbly, one of the best basketball players in the world," Tatum, who finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and a pair of blocks, told ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth in a walk-off interview.
Jayson Tatum: "Humbly, I'm one of the best basketball players in the world" pic.twitter.com/qpuy8KKNmg
— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) May 12, 2023
"Just believing that the next one is going in, as cliche as that s*** sounds, it's kind of as simple as that," he added afterward. "Really all it took was one to get that off my back and ... come out of here with a win."
The Celtics were minutes from an offseason of questions about first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla's job status, Tatum's ceiling, Brown's next contract and trade scenarios involving every member of the rotation.
The pressure shifts to the Sixers, whose own leadership group's Game 7 experiences are a nightmare. Embiid has not won a Game 7 in two previous tries, including an abysmal loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the conference semifinals two years ago. Co-star James Harden has shot 34.6% from the field and 14.3% from distance in four Games 7 since leaving his reserve role on the Oklahoma City Thunder to become a star.
"It's not going to be easy in that environment," said Embiid, who logged team highs of 26 points and 10 rebounds in Game 6. "Everybody has to step up, starting with me. I guess I've got to be more aggressive."
Then, there is Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers, whose nine losses in 16 career Games 7 are a record. He has lost four straight Games 7 since the 2015 Western Conference semifinals, when his LA Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead. He has never won a road Game 7, and his teams have blown six 3-2 series leads.
Just 48 hours after the franchise's biggest win in more than two decades, the Sixers are staring at a litany of offseason questions of their own. Rivers almost certainly will not remain as coach if they lose. Harden may head back to the Houston Rockets in free agency. And Embiid's record in the second round would run to 0-4. How might he feel about Philadelphia's championship prospects in the wake of another early exit?
"We've been in this situation before, my rookie year," said third-year Philadelphia guard Tyrese Maxey. "We've got to go out there and fight. It's going to be a war. One thing I will say is that if I have to go to war on the road Game 7 in Boston, I would want to go with this group. I know we've got some fighters."
Meanwhile, the Celtics are 5-1 in Games 7 since Brown's rookie season, their lone loss suffered at the hands of LeBron James in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, when Tatum was barely 20 years old. They won back-to-back Games 7 en route to last year's NBA Finals, the first at home and the second in Miami.
They know the score, and they rediscovered their identity in Game 6. Mazzulla started Robert Williams III for the first time in these playoffs alongside Al Horford in a double-big lineup that wreaked havoc defensively in last year's playoffs and throughout this past regular season. They built a 15-3 lead that grew to a 16-point advantage midway through the second quarter, and Williams finished a team-best +18 in his 28 minutes.
"To be able to have Rob in there, he changes the game a lot," Boston's Marcus Smart said of a necessary starting lineup change. "Being able to have a lob threat and be able to protect the rim on the other end, he's huge for us, and I was proud to have him on the court. That just goes to show Joe's learning, just like all of us. I know he's been killed a lot, rightfully so. He needs to make some adjustments, and he did that."
Boston's three-headed point guard combination of Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White sustained the Celtics through Tatum's shooting struggles and Brown's dribbling woes, combining for 47 points (on 10-of-19 shooting from range), 15 rebounds and 10 assists. It feels as if Tatum and Brown are overdue for a monster night in a moment they have met before and a home environment that will be absolutely electric.
"I'm hoping it's going to be loud and it's going to be rocking," said Brown, who started maskless for the first time since fracturing his face in February. "The Celtics fans, they love to call us out, so I'm going to call you guys out this time. The energy in the Garden has been OK at best all playoffs. Game 7, if you're there or not there, if you're at home, if you're watching at a bar, if you're watching down the street at a friend's house, I don't care. I need you to be up. I'm going to need you to come with the energy, because we're going to need every bit of it. No excuses. We need everybody. Let's make sure the Garden is ready to go."
The Celtics are 4-1 in Games 7 at home against the Sixers in the rivalry's lore, an Andrew Toney explosion in the 1982 conference semis marking the lone exception to a rule that says the hosts win 75% of the time.
Both Harden and Embiid have looked fatigued at points in this second round, including Game 6, when Embiid twice grabbed his sprained right knee in pain and Harden finished 4-for-16 from the field, missing all four of his fourth-quarter shots. They will have two days of rest for the first time in this series, and they have already won two of three games in TD Garden. An explosion of their own could end their rival's season.
"Boston was in the Finals last year, so somehow, someway we had to get through this team," said Harden. "They've been together for some years. They're well-coached. They've got a lot of depth. Everybody knows that. You know what I mean? We've got to get through them, and it's Game 7. We're taking our chances."
One team will walk away heartbroken on Sunday, the other as championship favorites. Game 7, the two most glorious words in basketball, and history will add a new chapter when the ball is tipped in Boston.