The Celtics want Jayson Tatum back with the Heat to shine defensively

BOSTON — If the Boston Celtics are going to complete a historic comeback against the Miami Heat, Jayson Tatum will have to be good. And while it’s natural to think his instincts will reach Tatum’s level of scoring, his big footprint may ultimately prevent Jimmy Butler from doing the same.

Tatum’s defensive strength, like these roller-coaster Celtics, could be broken. But the Celtics are a much more dangerous team when he’s moving around at the crease and at the other end of the floor. With Boston closing in on defense over the past two games, breathing life into a series that seemed all but over, Tatum’s ability to hunt down Butler’s various matchups has been key to the Miami offense.

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Tatum’s impact is more visible in the eyeball test than any other imperfect measure of defense. When Butler finds Tatum as his primary defender, he often works quickly to create turnovers and doesn’t choose to attack the basket as much — or at least when the younger Derek White doesn’t have the same intensity when he’s matched up against him.

The Celtics have thrown everyone on their roster around Butler, but they’ve had great success when one of their big wings — Tatum or Jaylen Brown — has been the primary defender. Butler is more likely to attack a smaller guard or test Robert Williams III with pump lies in the air than to challenge Tatum.

According to NBA tracking data, Tatum is Butler’s primary defender, accounting for nearly a third of Butler’s total offensive floor time. Over 28 minutes of action and 121 total possessions, Butler produced just 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting with five assists and three turnovers.

Butler had 113 points on 48-97 shooting with 29 assists and 11 turnovers in 56 minutes and 246 total possessions against the rest of the defense.

Tatum is not a lockdown defender against Butler. There is no one. The data shows that Tatum is a primary defender and is more likely to move the ball.

Tatum’s streak was minimal in Thursday’s Game 5 against Butler, but the scrimmage contributed to that. Tatum dominated that game in both scoring and play.

But in Game 6 and if the Celtics are lucky enough to see a Game 7, there will be times when Boston will need Tatum to challenge Butler’s defense and make sure he doesn’t take over. One of those games is going to be close to the finish line — that’s usually Jimmy Time — and Boston may need Tatum, who won’t let Butler win another game in a sleeper.

Much of this series will come down to shooting, but the most telling difference in Boston’s past two games has been its defensive strength.

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The Celtics spent the final two quarters of the 4th and the start of the 5th absolutely turning up the heat. Boston saw the “stock” rise with 16 steals/blocks in Game 4 and 17 more in Game 5. This defense easily created offense and put some pressure on the team to carry in the half court.

It was Tatum’s offense that took Boston to 6 and 7 against the Sixers in the second round of the upset. The Celtics may need him to put up big numbers again to complete a historic comeback.

But it’s what Tatum does to set the tone defensively that could determine whether Boston becomes the first team in NBA history to finish from 0-3 down.


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