Jayson Tatum, Celtics bounce back in competitive Game 3 win: 8 takeaways


Game 4 will take place in Cleveland on Monday at 7 p.m.

Celtic Jayson Tatum was unstoppable against the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals

The Celtics needed a big game from their stars on Saturday, and they got one to reclaim a 2-1 series lead with a 106-93 Game 3 victory over the Cavaliers.

Here are the takeaways.

1. If nothing else, Saturday was a reminder that the playoffs are hard.

The Celtics led by as many as 23 in the third quarter. The Cavaliers walked that lead down, but it never got much closer than nine or 10 the rest of the way.

And still, the Celtics looked winded after a highly physical game as the clock ran out in the fourth. Saturday’s win was not comfortable. Donovan Mitchell gives the Celtics everything they can handle. Missing Kristaps Porzingis is a big deal.

The Celtics can still beat the Cavaliers in five games — Monday’s game suddenly looms large as a pivotal contest, to use one of sports’ most overused Game-4 phrases. With a win, the Celtics would have a chance to close the Cavaliers out in Game 5 at home.

But the Cavaliers, as Mazzulla has noted on several occasions, are a good team. It won’t be easy.

2. Jayson Tatum scored 33 points on 11-for-25 shooting. He still couldn’t find the range from behind the arc (2-for-8 after making his first two in a row), but he had a few spectacular plays including a nice lob to Luke Kornet in transition as well as a picture-perfect iso jumper over Max Strus late in the fourth.

Tatum took a lot of heat after the Celtics’ Game 2 loss, but he and Brown answered the avalanche of criticism with complete overall performances. Tatum added 13 rebounds and six assists on Saturday, while Brown scored a hyper-efficient 28 points on 13-for-17 shooting to go with nine rebounds and three assists.

“I respect you guys’ job,” Tatum told reporters after Saturday’s game. “I respect the guys on TV. I don’t always agree with the things that they say. When they’re fair, and they take emotion out of it, whatever way they’re leaning towards, and they’re fair, I respect it. I understand what the media has brought to our game, and more eyes, and more attention, and how everybody has benefited from that.

“So I wouldn’t say I take it as disrespect, right? Like I said, I don’t always agree with what they say. Maybe I feel like they’re not watching everything else that I’m doing, but that’s not my job to focus on that or give it any attention. My job is to be the best player I can be for our team any given night.”

3. Both Tatum and Brown drew praise for their leadership postgame as well. Al Horford told NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin afterward that Tatum challenged the team at halftime, and they answered with a 14-0 run that pushed the lead into the 20s.

“Just challenged everybody,” Tatum said. “Myself, the starters, we’ve had a tendency in the past to relax coming out of the halftime. We’re usually winning coming out ahead of time.

“So just challenged the group: ‘Can we come out like our back is against the wall? Can we make them call the first time out? Can we come on like we’re down nine?’ We responded, and we started the third quarter very well.”

The Celtics also responded to Brown’s comments calling the team’s defense “unacceptable” after Game 2. The Celtics allowed just 105.7 points per 100 possessions (21st percentile), and they held the Cavaliers to fewer than 24 points in each of the final three quarters.

Brown drew postgame praise from Jrue Holiday for being “the leader that he is” and for “expressing his feelings and just kind of pouring out his knowledge on the game.”

“We watched film, hold each other accountable, and just speak life into everybody and set the tone from the top down,” Brown said. “Just hold myself accountable, making sure my defense is right, and I think everybody else just followed suit.”

4. Holiday had a big game as well — 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting, with eight rebounds and five assists. He noted afterward that part of the reason he was aggressive was in an attempt to wear out Donovan Mitchell.

“We know Donovan’s going to be aggressive on one side of the ball, but we can make him run on the other side if he’s guarding me,” Holiday said. “There’s a lot of times where I might defer or do something [else], and I just thought maybe attacking him might get him even more exhausted by the third or fourth quarter.”

To that end, Mitchell scored 10 points (4-for-10) in the second half after posting 23 points (8-for-12) in the first half. Holiday might be onto something.

“I felt like he was a little gassed. It’s hard, what he’s doing,” Holiday said.

5. Holiday is right: Mitchell — who scored 33 points on 12-for-22 shooting — finished 7-for-12 from behind the arc, and all seven were step-back 3-pointers. Six came in the first half.

On several occasions, Mitchell iso’d against either Horford or Sam Hauser. On one possession, the Cavaliers brought both Horford and Hauser’s defensive assignments up in a Horns set and gave Mitchell the choice of which player he wanted to attack (he chose Horford).

Mitchell is really impressive. Scheming against him looks like a nightmare.

6. Horford shot just 1-for-7 and looked tired at times on Saturday. Could Xavier Tillman buy him some more rest as the Celtics wait for Kristaps Porzingis to return?

7. Payton Pritchard had a relatively quiet stat line (five points, three rebounds and three assists), but he made two plays with outsized importance.

The first was a defensive stop against Mitchell at the end of the third quarter. As time wound down, Pritchard matched Mitchell’s explosive herky-jerky step-back footwork and contested his shot enough to help force a miss and maintain a 15-point lead heading into the fourth.

The second was this gutsy 3-pointer from just in front of the Cavs’ half-court logo.

The Cavaliers had the lead down to nine, and they had two chances to trim it further but missed both opportunities. Pritchard’s triple — which the NBA officially listed as 33 feet — pushed the lead back to 12.

8. Game 4 will take place in Cleveland on Monday at 7 p.m.

“Anything can happen, especially if you come out flat,” Brown said. “We’ve got to do a better job of that. We can’t think like this series is going to go like last series. We’ve got to come out and have the same defensive effort going into Game 4, and that’s just the urgency we need to have.”

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