5 Game 6 takeaways

Celtics

Tatum scored 46 points and beat perhaps the best player in the NBA.

Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum is defended by Milwaukee Bucks’ Bobby Portis during the second quarter of Game 6. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Every great player has a few legacy games, and heading into Game 6 on Friday, Jayson Tatum had a few who almost made it.

There was a time when he scored 50 points in the play-off, but that season was doomed by the time the play-off rolled around. There was the valiant 50-point effort against the Nets that followed a few weeks later, but the Nets won that series hands down, which erased the memory of it. There was the Dunk-On-LeBron game, but the Cavaliers won.

Friday’s game was unequivocal. Facing elimination at the hands of perhaps the greatest basketball player on the planet, Tatum took on Giannis Antetokounmpo and won – a stunning 46-point performance that lifted the Celtics to a 108-95 victory and sent the series back to Boston for a decisive game. Game 7.

“I was thrilled to play today, Game 6,” Tatum said. “It was a great moment, for all of us. For me and the team, how we would react. Losing Game 5 was going to make or break us. I think we showed a lot of tenacity and growth coming here. and picking up a win on the road and just giving us a chance.

Tatum scored seven 3-pointers, but he scored in different ways – 10 of his field goals were twos, and he had several aggressive impulses in the paint that set up the rest of his offense.

Meanwhile, he also dished out four assists as the Bucks crumbled on him. Increasingly, the Celtics are figuring out how to release him if necessary, but he did fine even in isolation on Friday.

Antetokounmpo was excellent too – 44 points on 30 shots – but the Celtics held serve and Tatum had an answer for every run.

“He went into another mode right there,” Smart said. “We saw it in his eyes. He was aggressive, he was coming towards us: ‘Give me the ball. And we’ll give him the ball. He asked for it, and that’s what we’re going to do. Like I said, that’s why he gets paid a lot of money.

Savor this moment, if you are a Celtics fan. Not every franchise can watch an NBA top 10 player every night. Fewer still can see a homegrown star take on perhaps the NBA’s best player and rise above the moment in the team’s biggest game of the year.

The Celtics are still alive thanks to their superstardom, and especially if they win on Sunday, Tatum’s performance in Friday’s game will stick with the fans for a long time.

More takeaways

2. Once again, Derrick White put on a nice and comfortable game – especially in the second quarter as the Celtics tried to get a bit of a lead. White’s defensive prowess combined with his ability to attack the edge put a lot of pressure on the Bucks, who are focused on keeping other players from getting to the edge. White is often secondary to their defensive schemes, so his baskets around the edge are crucial.

White finished with nine points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

“Derrick has been terrific,” Jaylen Brown said. “He made big play after big play. We keep pushing him and challenging him, putting him in position to succeed. He’s just a great player.

3. After being heavily criticized for his play in Game 5, Marcus Smart put together a neat and impressive Game 6 – 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting, 5-of-9 on three to go with seven assists.

Smart told reporters after the game that he hadn’t slept in two days, and immediately after Game 5 he drove straight to the Celtics’ training facility to compose himself.

“That last minute, those last minutes ate me up,” Smart said.

He added that Celtics coach Damien Stoudamire pulled him aside and told him to keep his head up.

“He was just, ‘I’ve never seen you do this and I just want you to not lose faith in yourself because we need you,'” Smart said. “So come on tonight, I just wanted to go out there and catch my teammates and help them out and try to get that win.”

4. The Celtics may have found something that really works against the Bucks in their (rather) three-guard roster: Tatum, White, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart plus one big man. This group – which ended Friday’s game on the floor – stretches the Bucks and keeps a good defender from Antetokounmpo on the floor. Even if Antetokounmpo fires up (and he certainly did in Game 6), the extra spacing pays big dividends.

In the playoffs, these four players in the field with a big beat their opponents by more than 30 points per 100 possessions, after winning their minutes of 18.7 points per 100 possessions in the regular season (which was still a total of 100th percentile).

“They’ve been good all year, honestly, with Derrick in the game,” Ime Udoka said after Game 6. “There are four guys who can create, space differently, and are threats there and they defend it a little bit differently. They have another guy to worry about other than spotting the shot, and just so that a other guy can initiate. They put their best defenders on some guys and that frees up others to come off, and Derrick was one of them that can come down and make the right play and start our offense with a little less pressure, so I love what he’s doing there with that band.

It remains to be seen how this group evolves during the playoffs, but these four may have found something for next season (especially since the addition of Robert Williams to the mix during the regular season has made them rise to +29.7 in a few very limited minutes).

5. The Celtics are now being rewarded for winning their last game of the regular season: in doing so, they clinched home-court advantage in Game 7 against a Bucks team that chose to rest and avoid face the Nets in the first round. The Celtics swept the Nets and will now face the Bucks in a do-or-die at a loud TD Garden.

“I had a couple of Game 7s in Boston, and I understand and know that being in the backyard is not somewhere you want to be on the road in Game 7,” Smart said.

It’s gonna be fun. It starts at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.