How Tatum's maturity has helped lift Celtics to 2-0 Finals lead

How Tatum's maturity has helped lift Celtics to 2-0 Finals lead originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It's one thing to talk about putting the team ahead of individual stats. It's quite another for your superstar player to fully embrace a facilitator role on the NBA's biggest stage, a day after the opposing coach suggested that player wasn't even the best on his own team.

But that's what Jayson Tatum has done through two games of the 2024 NBA Finals, and it's a big reason why the Boston Celtics are heading to Texas with a 2-0 series lead over the Dallas Mavericks.

Tatum had another poor shooting night in Sunday's Game 2 at TD Garden, going 6 for 22 from the floor and 1 for 7 from 3-point range to finish with 18 points. The First-Team All-NBA selection was the best passer on the court, however, racking up 12 assists -- tied for the second-most of his career -- including a playoff career-high eight dimes in the first half.

The Celtics' leading scorer throughout the season was the clear subject of Dallas' attention on defense Sunday night, so he willingly pivoted to setting up teammates Jrue Holiday (team-high 26 points), Jaylen Brown (21 points) and Derrick White (18 points), who helped lift Boston to a 105-98 win.

"I mean, every time I'd take a couple dribbles, like three people were right there," Tatum said after the game about the Mavs' defensive strategy. "We've got a bunch of shooters on our team and guys that can space the floor. They kept leaving Jrue open, so it wasn't like I had to do anything spectacular. It was just about finding the open guy."

Tatum's passing in Game 2 wasn't an aberration. He handed out five assists in Game 1 despite another quiet offensive night (16 points on 6 of 16 shooting) and leads all players through two Finals games in potential assists (13.5) and assist points created (20.0).

"The emphasis and where he's grown over the last two years is to take what the defenses give him and learn to impact the game in many different ways," Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said of Tatum after the game. "Because of the type of team that we've had, especially this year, he's seen a bunch of different coverages and he's seen different matchups because teams have to match up with him.

"It's kind of similar to a puzzle, and he's done a great job learning how to solve the puzzle and do different things."

Two postseasons ago, the Celtics were 4-5 when Tatum shot worse than 40 percent from the floor and 2-5 when he was under 35 percent, including a pair of losses to the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 Finals. This postseason, they're a perfect 6-0 when Tatum shoots worse than 40 percent.

That's in part a testament to Boston's revamped supporting cast led by Brown, Holiday, White and Kristaps Porzingis. But Tatum still deserves credit for trusting that his teammates will pick up his slack rather than trying to force the offensive issue. At one point late in the second quarter, for example, Tatum passed up a great 3-point look to set up an even better look for Holiday, who buried a corner 3-pointer.

"It has a lot to do with that I've been here before and we didn't win," Tatum said about becoming a more active playmaker. "We're so close to what we're trying to accomplish; why would I let my ego or my need to score all the points gets in the way of that?

"There are going to be times where I need to score, and obviously, I need to shoot better. Golly. But really, we always talk about, 'Do whatever it takes for however long it takes.' If I need to have 16 potential assists every single night and that's what puts us in the best position to win and it doesn't mean I'm the leading scorer, by all means. If that gives us the best chance to win, sign me up."

Boston may need Tatum to step up as a scorer when the series shifts to Dallas for Game 3. But even if his shooting struggles continue, he sounds fully bought in on setting up his teammates and making the right basketball play.

That may cost him a chance at series MVP, but there's a very good chance it earns him a championship ring.