Joe Mazzulla and Jayson Tatum were in an unbearable position on Thursday night as the Boston Celtics were heading for a crushing conclusion to their season against the Philadelphia 76ers. The young coach and the star player had to find a way to avoid the burden of enduring disappointment that could haunt them long-term, and it paid off as the Celtics stayed in contention with a 95-86 win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal.
It became apparent that the majority of the Boston squad wanted to revert to the large-scale approach they utilized when they made it to the NBA Finals the prior year. This necessitated Al Horford playing centre on defence, while Robert Williams III was employed as a roving deep safety, supplying extra assistance to the opposition’s worst shooter.
Williams suffered a knee injury during the playoffs last season, which resulted in him being labelled a game-time decision on a frequent basis (he missed seven games). He was an integral part of the plan, leading to regular uncertainty concerning his status.
But that so-called “double big” lineup, which crushed teams by 25 points for every 100 possessions together, was on the floor for a total of 81 minutes for the entire regular season and had yet to play a second in this series against Philadelphia entering Game 6.
Entering Game 6 of their series against Philadelphia, the “double big” lineup that boasted 25 points more for every 100 possessions than its opponents had only seen 81 minutes of playtime.
Mazzulla, an assistant coach from last season, opted to play Horford and Williams in addition to a perimeter player such as White or Brogdon. However, prior to their trip to Philadelphia, he changed his mind and returned to the “double big” formation as a result of Harden’s knack for getting into the paint too easily and Embiid’s impressive progression.
Despite what may have been said in private, his players praised him for abandoning his original game plan and embracing a new approach.
The Sixers seemed unprepared as the lineup contributed to freezing their ball movement. Harden, who finished 4-of-16 shooting, and Embiid, who scored 26 points but was rendered ineffective in the fourth quarter, faded from a chance to advance to the conference finals for the first time in 22 years.
“I saw a sense of urgency, I saw a sense of togetherness,” Mazzulla said. “The guys have shown that as long as they have played together.”
Then there was Tatum, who was in a different mindset. His drama wasn’t planned, he wallowed in it. After sitting around for a few days hearing about how he badly needed to get off to a good start for his team in an elimination game after going 0-of-8 out of the gate in Game 4 and 0-of-6 in Game 5, Tatum was playing one of the worst games of his life.
The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to be inadequately prepared as the lineup brought about an unexpected stall in ball movement. The disappointing showings of Harden, who finished with 4-of-16 shooting, and Embiid, who scored 26 points yet was left with no answer in the fourth quarter, hindered their opportunities of advancing to the conference finals for the first time in 22 years.
“I saw a spirit of urgency and an air of solidarity,” Mazzulla expressed. “The players have revealed that so long as they play as one, it can all come together.”
Tatum, on the other hand, was of a different mindset. His unscripted ordeal wasn’t something he’d wanted but still he plunged into it. After taking some days to reflect on how essential it was for him to start the game on a high note for his team, as he’d gone 0-of-8 in Game 4 and 0-of-6 in Game 5, Tatum ended up experiencing one of the toughest nights of his career.
His teammates weren’t caught up watching television or scrolling their phones but they had an idea of the scathing feedback they were receiving. During timeouts, Smart, Brown, Horford, Brogdon, Grant Williams, and more of his teammates sought him out and attempted to shake him out of his funk.
And when one faces the possibility of not being able to rise to the challenge, a certain degree of anxiety sets in. Tatum had made first team All-NBA just a day earlier, and this eligibility had made him qualified to sign a contract next year amounting up to $318 million. Everyone knew this fact, yet he only hit one shot from 14 attempts.
Tatum couldn’t help but constantly check the game clock as he kept reassuring himself that there was still enough time for him to make a difference. With the score being close, there was still room for him to make a mark.
Tatum turned it around in the fourth quarter. He dropped 16 points, three more than the 76ers team scored, and also went 4-of-5 in his 3-pointers. He gazed towards the crowd that had begun to make their way out.
He then approached ESPN sideline reporter Cassidy Hubbarth for a walk-off interview, in front of millions of fans, and uttered an epic phrase:
“I’m humbly, one of the best basketball players in the world.”
The moment was too good to be forgotten in disgrace.
“I strongly believe that, and I know it too,” Tatum replied an hour later after attending to a series of messages he had received on his phone. “But I think that reveals your character when you can reassure yourself of the same, even when shots aren’t dropping when things aren’t going your way. I just kept reminding myself of that until it started to turn around.”