Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown execute in crunch time to lift Celtics

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Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons
Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Celtics went to their two young studs when it mattered most.

Jayson Tatum has had a lot of practice attempting game-winning shots so far this season.

And while it has come with mixed results, Tatum hasn’t shied away from the pressure-packed, end-of-game situations.

The Boston Celtics put the ball in Tatum’s hands once again with a chance to win Sunday versus the Detroit Pistons and the All-Star forward delivered in the clutch by sinking a mid-range jumper with 2.9 seconds remaining to lift the Celtics to a 122-120 victory. For Tatum, who banked-in a game-winning 3-pointer versus the Milwaukee Bucks on opening night and came up short on a last-second shot against the Indiana Pacers, it was his second game-winning bucket of the season coming in a moment he craves to thrive in.

“I want to be in that situation,” said Tatum, who finished with 24 points on 10-of-22 shooting. “So just learn from the shots that I do make, learn from the shots that I don’t.

“I want to be a guy that’s known for hitting big shots in clutch situations.”

Tatum’s critical bucket against the Pistons with time running down was much different than the attempts he got off versus the Bucks and Pacers when faced with the same situation.

With Boston trailing by one against the Bucks, Tatum dribbled over to the left wing and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Giannis Antetokounmpo switched onto him. Tatum pounded the ball into the hardwood with Antetokounmpo defending him before getting off a tightly contest, step-back 3-pointer. Tatum had to put so much arc on the ball to get it over the reach of Antetokounmpo that it looked like his shot might scrape the rafters before it went off glass and through the net with less than one second remaining.

Two games later versus the Pacers, Tatum thought the same approach would work again, but it yielded much different results. Tatum held the ball with his feet on the Pacers’ logo as the clock ticked away and gained separation against Malcolm Brodgon with his slick step-back move.

The only problem? Tatum was still nearly 30 feet away from the hoop instead of trying to get a more high-percentage look given the circumstance. Tatum’s shot went awry, clanging off the rim as time expired, leaving the Celtics with a one-point defeat.

But Tatum, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens, learned from those two opportunities and Tatum was in a more favorable position against the Pistons.

This time, Tatum caught the ball right at the top of the arc and unlike his two previous end-of-game moments, the prolific scorer did not hesitate, which was quite possibly the most important factor in the outcome that came seconds later. He took Blake Griffin off the dribble, catching Griffin off guard with a drive to his left, and instead of going into the teeth of Detroit’s defense, Tatum wisely and smoothly rose up from 17-feet and swished his go-ahead jumper.

“Obviously, we wanted to milk the clock all the way down to the end,” Stevens said. “Try to get it to Jayson a little bit lower than we had in previous occasions so he could then play off the live dribble at the top of the key. I thought he made a really hard move to his left and made a good decision to pull up. If he would have tried to go in there any deeper, you got a bunch of hands and arms and all that stuff.”

Tatum also showed his late-game poise in the possession before his game-winning shot. With the Celtics trailing by a point, Tatum again used a hard drive to his left to get past Mason Plumlee and showcased his increased playmaking ability by kicking it out to Jaylen Brown on the wing from the opposite block.

Brown, who netted a game-high 31 points on a sensational 13-of-16 shooting, buried the 3-point attempt and gave Tatum his 12th assist, which marked a career-high. For Boston, converting those two plays in crunch time brought a sigh of relief after it missed similar opportunities in a 96-93 loss to the Pistons two days prior.

“We haven’t been good, especially down the stretch executing wise,” said Marcus Smart. “We got to our spots, we got the ball where we wanted it and those two players made great shots and great reads and won us the game.”

It’s particularly important that the Celtics rely on their two young studs to make these type of shots. With Kemba Walker sidelined with a knee injury, Brown and Tatum have relished the opportunity, coming through more often than not when called upon, which will only cement their star status and raise up the team to the height it wants to reach.

“It’s exhilarating for us. We love it,” Smart said. “Those guys are two of the best in the NBA. They know it, we know it and everybody else in the league knows it. They have to act like it and they got to have that swagger with it and they’ve been doing that.”