Jayson Tatum, Celtics Know Hard-Fought Game 1 Win vs. Pacers Doesn’t Guarantee Anything

Boston's star finished with 36 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
Tatum (0) has shouldered much of the criticism for Boston’s perceived lack of urgency in these playoffs.
Tatum (0) has shouldered much of the criticism for Boston’s perceived lack of urgency in these playoffs. / Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON – It was well after midnight when Jayson Tatum made his way to the postgame press conference room, readying for a meeting with reporters that could have looked a lot different. For three quarters on Tuesday Tatum was brilliant, collecting points (22) and rebounds (8), all while shooting a tidy 53%. In the fourth Tatum went cold, missing five of his seven shots. He missed his first three in overtime before the early game touch returned: a three-point play gave the Boston Celtics a one-point lead over the Indiana Pacers and a top-of-the-key three pushed it to four, sealing the Celtics 133–128 Game 1 win.

“I’m so glad we won the game,” said Tatum. “Because I would have been sick.”

Sick, and crucified, at least publicly. Tatum has had a target on his back this postseason, a bullseye for pundits from Bristol to L.A. His numbers (25.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists) are good, but not good enough. His team is 9–2, but unlike Nikola Jokić, Luka Dončić and the rest of Tatum’s peers, he is seen as more a tire on the car than the engine. Had Boston not pulled out a win on Tuesday, Tatum would have awoken Wednesday to his name chyroned all over cable TV.

They almost didn’t. In its first conference finals in 10 years, Indiana came to play. A 12-point Boston lead in the first quarter was erased by halftime. A 13-point Celtics lead in the third was whittled to one going into the fourth. Each time Boston put together a run to whip the TD Garden crowd into a frenzy, Indiana responded.

With 10 seconds left in the fourth, the Pacers clung to a three-point lead. But an inbounds pass tipped off the hands of Pascal Siakam, giving Boston one more chance. In the huddle, Joe Mazzulla drew up a play for Jaylen Brown. As Brown emerged, he told himself, it’s going in. Jrue Holiday found Brown in the corner. With Siakam in his chest, Brown knocked down a game-tying three.

“This loss is totally on me,” said Indiana head coach Rick Carlisle. “With 10 seconds in regulation, we should have just taken the timeout, advance the ball and found a way to get it in and made a free throw or two and ended the game.”

Indiana was expected by many to be little more than cannon fodder against Boston, but Tuesday’s effort served notice: The Pacers are here to win. Tyrese Haliburton (25 points, 10 assists) was brilliant, Siakam (24 points, 12 rebounds) too, while Myles Turner terrorized the Celtics from three. Indiana’s bench—a strength the whole postseason—outscored Boston’s 30–13, forcing Mazzulla to extend each of his starters to 40-plus minutes per game.

“We got to match their intensity if we’re going to win this series,” said Brown.

There is pressure on Boston to win this series, pressure to win a championship. The Denver Nuggets are out, leaving the Celtics as the most experienced team left standing. All the excuses Boston fell back on before, from age to inexperience to better teams in front of them, are gone now. The Celtics have elite defenders ( Holiday, Derrick White), skilled wings (Tatum, Brown) and an ageless big man (Al Horford) who continues to produce. Indiana is good, but, even without Kristaps Porziņģis, Boston has advantages everywhere.

That includes Tatum. Few players possess Tatum’s combination of size and skill—and fewer are under more pressure. For seven years Tatum has racked up the individual accolades, the All-Stars and All-NBAs, but that’s all meaningless now. Entering this postseason, Tatum told people around him: This is our chance. The Celtics are loaded, connected, built to win. Said one person close to Tatum, “He is obsessed with winning a title.”

Against Indiana, Tatum showed the resolve needed to do it. Late in overtime, Tatum turned it over, a miscommunication with Holiday that ended with White fouling Haliburton on a three-point attempt. At the free throw line, Holiday tapped Tatum. Stay aggressive, he said. With just over a minute left, Tatum drove into T.J. McConnell, finishing a layup through contact. On the next possession, he knocked down a step back three.

“It's as simple as just believing that the next one is going in,” said Tatum. “And I always feel like I'm one make away from being hot or being in a great rhythm. So taking the right shots, playing within the flow of the game and doing all the other necessary things to impact the game.”

Said Mazzulla, “He just plays with a level of poise and a level of comfort knowing that the next one has got a chance to go.”

Tatum shrugs off questions about external criticism because, really, he puts far more pressure on himself. The sound of Golden State celebrating its 2022 championship in the Garden still haunts him and there will always be what-ifs with Game 7 of last season’s conference finals, in which Tatum was injured on the opening play. At 26, Tatum knows he’s reaching that championship-or-bust stage, and he needs no reminder.

“We won a big time game,” said Tatum. “Series is far from over. Got to come back and play well enough to win again on Thursday. I'm not trying to prove anything individually. I know the ultimate goal is to try to win a championship, but one step at a time.”

Indeed. While the roars from a giddy home crowd rolled down Causeway St., inside Boston’s locker room the celebration was far more muted. It’s one down, three to go and experience has taught the Celtics that it only gets tougher. “This core group has been in so many big-time games, big-time moments,” said Tatum. The hope is, they will be in a few more.

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Chris Mannix


Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix has boxed with Juan Manuel Marquez, played guard in the NBA's D-League and even tried his hand at bull riding at the Sankey Rodeo School in Martin, Tenn. The latter assignment left him with a bunch of bruises and a fractured collarbone. "I liked all the first-person experiences, but fighting Juan was my favorite assignment for SI," says Mannix. "It was a tremendous experience that required brutal training and introduced me to a fear I never knew I had." Mannix has covered the NBA since he arrived at SI in 2003. He currently writes columns and profiles in the magazine and for SI.com and also serves as SI's NBA draft expert. Among the NBA stars he has profiled: Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Andrei Kirilenko. As a teenager Mannix was a locker room attendant with the Boston Celtics for eight seasons (1995-2003) and covered high school sports for the Boston Globe. "Working for the Celtics was like attending a different fantasy camp every game. I spent pregames D'ing up the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and yes, Michael Jordan. Last time I went one-on-one with MJ he beat me 48-0. I got one shot off … and it was blocked." Boxing is also one of Mannix's specialties. He has reported for SI on several championship fights, annually hands out SI.com's boxing awards and writes the website's "Inside Boxing" column. Mannix won the 2012 Boxing Writers Association of America's awards for Best Feature over 1,750 words and Best Feature under 1,750 words. In addition to his duties at SI, Mannix serves as host of The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio (Sundays 6–9 p.m. ET) and is a co-host of Voices of the Game, with Newy Scruggs every Wednesday from Noon–3 p.m. ET. In addition, Mannix is a ringside reporter for Epix and Fight Night on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a regular guest and fill-in host on The Dan Patrick Show and The Crossover on NBC Sports Network. He also regularly appears on sports radio shows across the country, including weekly appearances in Miami, Orlando and Salt Lake City.  Mannix received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Boston College in 2003 and graduated from Boston College High School in 1998 (which makes him a double Eagle). He resides in New York City.