Jayson Tatum helps Celtics survive to take 3-0 lead over Pacers. Has Boston proven its mettle for the championship?

INDIANAPOLIS — Jayson Tatum’s favorite playoff games are Game 3s. “Walking into an opponent’s building, it’s their first home game, the crowd is electric,” Tatum said. He’s accustomed, mind you, to the third battle of a series taking place on the road, since Boston has earned home-field advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs in six of Tatum’s seven seasons. with the Celtics, including a top-two seed in each of the last three years. He dribbles with aggression and defends with intensity and rounds his massive shoulders for critical plays on the glass. He feels a moment and the requirement to deliver.

Tatum considered Gainbridge Fieldhouse to be a hostile environment that he needed to silence on Saturday night. The Pacers hadn’t lost in this arena, in front of this golden sea of ​​checkered flag T-shirts, since March 18 — including a 6-0 playoff slate. Indiana appeared on track to extend that streak, even without injured All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, thanks to a superb mid-range shot that built an 18-point lead at 6:04 in the third quarter.

Roster and matchup adjustments made by Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla helped Boston navigate its way into another crucial contest. And who was it but Tatum, finishing with 36 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists – the first in NBA playoff history to total those numbers without a single turnover – shooting two on a drive powerful with just over a minute to play. Tatum saw that Myles Turner had sagged on the baseline and read the Pacers center like a children’s book. If he was there, it meant Turner had moved on from his current position, ageless Celtics big man Al Horford. And once Tatum convinced Turner, along with two other defenders, that he was going for it in the lane, Tatum sent his dribble behind his back, the ball bouncing once and straight into Horford’s shooting pocket.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) celebrates during the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals against the Indiana Pacers, Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Indianapolis.  (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Jayson Tatum and the Celtics flexed their muscles in the second half of Game 3 to hold on and take a 3-0 series lead. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

“I had confidence he would be there,” Tatum said, and Hoford’s seventh triple of the contest – five of which were assisted by Tatum – splashed the cotton. That’s the kind of playmaking talent that earned Tatum first-team All-NBA honors this week for the fourth straight season. It’s the type of playoff pass that will sizzle on highlights well beyond when these Celtics’ run stops cooking, something worth commemorating. “Hang it in the fucking Louvre,” Celtics All-Star wing Jaylen Brown said.

Boston, of course, really only cares about hanging banners, and this courageous 114-111 victory, claiming a 3-0 advantage over Indiana, is perhaps the Celtics’ biggest claim, but the best The league’s regular season team can really hold up in these playoffs. glove. Yes, injuries have riddled each of Boston’s playoff opponents — Haliburton’s hamstring follows Donovan Mitchell’s calf and Jarrett Allen’s ribs and Jimmy Butler’s knee and so on — but this early struggle against the Pacers were terribly reminiscent of the Celtics’ Game 2 losses in each of their defeats. first two series, like the shocking instances where Boston’s high-powered offense looks like this stuff, until this time – Boston held on.

The Celtics’ defensive execution lacked timing and tenacity. Outside of Tatum and Horford, the Celtics’ other shooters launched shots, connecting on just 4 of 22 from distance. “When these things haven’t happened for us in the past,” Horford said, “it hasn’t been good.” Mazzulla, however, prepared Boston for the special challenge of this game, for the special challenge of any game, all season. “Joe always says, ‘It’s not always going to go the way we want or the way we expect,’” Tatum said. These 48 minutes are rarely devoted to the script, but Mazzulla preaches being ready to scribble everything in red ink.

“Joe was trying to do everything he could to get us going,” Horford said.

“At one point I looked at the scoreboard and I was like, ‘Dallas was down 18 last night,'” Mazzulla said, referring to the Mavericks’ comeback to steal a 2-0 lead against the Minnesota in the Western Conference finals. “It has to be normal. We have to know that we are going to lose in the playoffs and we have to play there.

Mazzulla and All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday spent all season whispering on the sidelines about how to change a certain coverage here, reverse a certain play there, to routinely disrupt their opponent. Holiday’s rare ability at just 6-foot-4 to guard all five positions unlocks almost any alignment or adjustment Mazzulla can imagine, like sticking point guard on Turner — even after a fever leaves Holiday bedridden with chills all day with its status undetermined until warm-up. . And so Boston showed Indiana plenty of zone before switching to a man-to-man matchup with reserve center Xavier Tillman.

“We’ve changed so many times and done so many different things against everyone in the league that we really feel like we can do a lot of different things defensively,” Holiday said.

Holiday’s exclamation point of the evening came on that side of the court, a vintage pickpocket in transition, but that only came after the veteran guard, the only Celtics player to hold a championship ring, lowered his shoulder to Pascal Siakam and kicked off. leads on a three-point play with 39 seconds left. Then, after Tatum’s last and final drive missed the target, Holiday swarmed Pacers guard Aaron Nembhard as he brought in the rebound as time expired. He absorbed a shoulder from Nembhard, who led Indiana with 32 points, and Holiday even had to touch the woodwork to maintain balance. But he beat the second-year goalie to the spot, placed his chest in front of the kid’s and released the ball.

“It’s a trademark steal that he always gets with the inside hand,” Mazzulla said. “He often has that when the guy gets on the sideline in transition. I was looking forward to a few of them. He didn’t have as many as I would have liked this year. It was a massive play.

There’s just something about Game 3s. And that same pattern, a third out being Tatum’s first of the series on the road, awaits Boston in the NBA Finals. The Celtics are just one win away from reaching the championship round for the second time in three years. And yet, these Celtics know exactly what they will have to deal with on Monday. A year ago, they won three in a row after falling into this exact hole against Miami.

“We know for one second that we can’t relax,” Tatum said.