PHILADELPHIA — Jayson Tatum began pounding the rock on his own at half court. Standing on his own where less than one quarter earlier, at half court, he hesitated to drive, pulled-up and fired a pass backward to James Harden. Nearly an iconic image from an unforgettable meltdown as the Celtics’ season faded. Plays later — Tyrese Maxey ran in transition as Tatum committed a clear path foul that gave away the lead.
Only six minutes remained and Tatum had hit one shot. He prevailed, burying four straight threes from that point on, and as the final seconds ticked away in Boston’s Game 6 win, Al Horford joined him with a dap that echoed.
“(I) just kind of let him know that he is that guy,” Horford told CLNS Media, still catching his breath from the team’s closing defensive stand. “He’s special and really made key plays down the stretch for us.”
Horford and the Celtics held the 76ers to 0-for-9 shooting as Tatum escaped from his 1-for-13 start. He scored 12 of Boston’s final 14 points and separated the team, 95-86, to save its season after Tatum’s 0-for-10 first half. His lull extended into the fourth, including the giveaway that led to a go-ahead Joel Embiid mid-ranger. The clear path foul sent Embiid to the free throw line. Only Embiid never should’ve shot them.
Maxey, who stripped Jaylen Brown and ran for an inevitable layup, drew Tatum’s take foul and needed to take the free throws. Embiid took them instead, and the officials didn’t realize until Doc Rivers challenged an out-of-bounds call. The 76ers won that review before the referees sent Maxey to the line to shoot again. Tatum watched, confused, able to breath and free his mind for a moment from his struggles. Maxey nearly picked off Brown’s pass on the next possession, Malcolm Brogdon hauled it in and he swung a pass to Tatum in the corner.
Embiid closed out to the corner. Tatum’s second shot fell.
Then another, a step-back three that sent Maxey back-peddling into the paint. Then another, popping off a screen for Smart plays later that gave Boston an eight-point lead. Then another, the decisive step-back. Nine. Game.
“Al was excited. I was excited,” Tatum said. “He just kept telling me, ‘that’s what you do. Be that killer.’ Just having that encouragement from my teammates throughout the course of the game. It’s tough to believe in somebody when they only made one shot, but I know the guys believe in me all the way until the clock hit zero.”
Joe Mazzulla told Tatum he loved him — a staple of enduring belief that both shared with each other throughout the year. Tatum revealed he pulled Mazzulla aside during the season’s downturns. Both faced enormous pressure entering Wells Fargo Arena on the brink of elimination well short of the NBA Finals. Tatum shot a combined 0-for-10 in the first quarters of Games 4-5, and despite Mazzulla’s adjustment toward last year’s starting lineup, telling Robert Williams III last night he’d replace Derrick White, little changed for Tatum.
Harden targeted P.J. Tucker along the baseline while Williams III stood in front, ignoring Tucker and forcing Harden’s errant pass out-of-bounds. Maxey launched a floater over Williams III, who remained parked in the lane, that bounced off the back of the rim. Embiid rushed up the floor and dropped a pass from Harden trying to beat Boston’s set defense. The Celtics’ offense couldn’t establish a double-digit lead, though.
Embiid forced Tatum to kick-out on the drive and Brown lost control of the ball on a mid-range shot attempt. Marcus Smart ripped the ball from Embiid on an opportunistic double-team, Horford chased down and blocked Tobias Harris after a turnover and slapped a failed attempt by Harden to draw a foul to Brogdon, who traveled in transition. The Sixers shot back on a 9-0 run after Boston went small, Smart lighting up the huddle after Harris grabbed a Maxey miss off the glass and passed to Maxey again for three to pull within 15-12.
“I just let them know, this could be our last opportunity,” Smart said. “We don’t want to get off this court saying, I should’ve done more, could’ve done more and then we’re pissed at ourselves. We’ve gotta go out there and it’s gotta be a dog fight, you’ve gotta be able to scrap, you’ve gotta be able to bleed, you’ve gotta be willing to take a shot to the face, to do whatever it takes to win.”
Tatum finished the first quarter 0-for-5 again, driving and missing four times into the painted area. He found Smart and White for early threes and fed Williams III two alley-oops, but watched Embiid pulverize another one of his shots at the rim and sent Horford — frustrated with the call — to the bench in foul.
Smart kept the Celtics in the game into the second quarter with a three after ripping the ball out of Paul Reed’s hands. He chased a Tatum block on Harris that bounced to half court and ran it all the way back for two points. The Celtics’ lead mounted to 16 even as Tatum missed inside and out, Mazzulla reminding him to not define his performance by his scoring over multiple games. Tatum rebounded, defended, passed and kept shooting, but entered halftime with his head down after missing a spinning layup and pull-up three before the buzzer. Grant Williams met him at half court to talk him up.
“Keep going, I believe in you,” Brown told Tatum. “Whoever’s on him, tell him they can’t guard you. Stop being apprehensive and just go … it don’t gotta be pretty, you’ve just gotta get it done.”
Tatum freed up Williams III for back line scores after halftime, then pounded and pounded the ball as he twisted inside for his first basket. Then, Harden and Embiid scored five straight points to cut the Celtics’ lead to five. Embiid stuffed Brown inside and Georges Niang hit a three to make it two. Tatum tried to line up Niang, dribbling and dribbling before losing the ball. Harden handed the Sixers a lead at the free throw line.
As he stood away the ball for the next few possessions, Tatum looked unplayable and on the way to fading as one of three players since 1997 to miss all 10 shots in a postseason half. Boston fell behind by five points before Brown picked up the ball to score four straight points. Smart’s alley-oop to Williams III tied the game entering the fourth quarter. One of the more consequential in recent franchise history. Huge stakes loomed for Tatum, Brown, both due mega-extensions without having approached a championship, along with Mazzulla.
Smart tried to provide an outlet for Tatum, launching a pass his way in transition after a stop that Tatum pulled out. His toss back to Harden, chasing him from behind, would last as the defining moment in this team’s collapse. Embiid backed is way into the post, launched a layup that fell long into Tatum’s hands, who charged ahead and drew go-ahead free throws he sunk. Those stops continued, on Embiid, on Maxey, on Harden, as Philadelphia’s offense shut off, and Tatum received chances to pile on the lead. Up one, up four, up eight, as the crowd exited.
It all released at mid-court in three hard dribbles, a yell, chest bump with Horford and a humble pronouncement of his standing among the league’s best players on his ESPN walk-off interview. On to Game 7.
“(My teammates) were extremely vocal throughout the game,” Tatum said. “Encouraging … that s*** was frustrating, you want to win so bad, you want to play so well and shot’s not falling, things not necessarily going your way and you want it so bad. Trying to stay present. Trying to stay in the moment. Try and do other things. Every timeout, every huddle, my teammates are telling me the next one’s going in. Keep rebounding. Keep getting assists. Keep getting blocks … just believing the next one’s going in … really, all it took was one to get that off my back and try to help the team come out here with a win.”
“I don’t wanna do that s*** again. Hopefully that’s a one time thing … but if that’s what it takes for us to win, I’ll go 0-for-whatever.”