Jayson Tatum helps Celtics weather fourth quarter struggles with stellar game against Raptors

Entering Sunday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics were the worst fourth quarter team (net odds of 11.6) in the NBA in the first 20 games of the regular season.

Those struggles were fully visible on Friday night in San Antonio when a Spurs team in the middle of a six-game losing streak ended the Celtics with a 15-0 streak only to run away with a 99-88 victory.

Ime Udoka denounced his team’s selfish play in the first quarter of that game on Friday night, but the woes of the fourth quarter have been a much more constant problem for this team throughout the year. Boston struggled to hold onto the lead late, stumbling on both sides of the field when the lights are brightest, ranking only 30th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive rating.

Sunday’s game against the understaffed Raptors provided yet another opportunity to overcome these woes of the season as the Celtics entered the final frame just four points clear in enemy territory. Boston held a lead despite Jayson Tatum shooting a putrid 1 of 9 on the field in the first three frames, relying instead on the balance of the supporting cast to stay in the game.

During the last collapses of the fourth quarter, Tatum and the other Boston stars managed to knock the Cs out of wins with predictable and unproductive offensive sets. This time around, the story was different, as Tatum and a team made up of many benches found a consistent appearance and an easy attack for the majority of the final 12 minutes.

Tatum was at the forefront of this offensive attack, but only managed to score four points in the final frame on a 1-in-7 shot. Instead, it’s his pass (five of his 10 assists, a season-high, in the final quarter) that set the table for a Celtics team that embraced the extra pass for much of the night.

“It obviously wasn’t his best shooting night, but he played the right way all night,” Ime Udoka said of Tatum. “We know he’s going to get a ton of attention from them and he continues to trust his guys and make the right play and that leads to the assists. 24 assists out of 34 baskets do him credit. Almost had half of us and he just has to be the guy who’s going to bait the guys over there sometimes. Be the lure to some extent and attract that crowd and you will find that everyone has pretty much eaten of him tonight. So thanks to him for playing the right way, not getting frustrated and sticking to it. “

With Tatum making the right play, his teammates follow suit. Marcus Smart scored eight of his best 21 points of the season in the fourth quarter while Josh Richardson tied his season high with 18 points off the bench, six of them in the final quarter.

Udoka also learned from his own mistake at San Antonio by riding reserves having good nights instead of coming back to his starters when his team was rolling. Enes Kanter appeared in the final 12 minutes of the game against Al Horford after putting on another productive outing in the paint (9 points, 10 rebounds in 22 minutes). The Tatum / Kanter unit has also seen tremendous success in recent weeks (+19 net scores), reforming the magic they had together during parts of the 2019-20 regular season.

“He’s a great screen passer, first, then downhill, not the fastest roller, but he puts pressure on the rim with his offensive rebound,” Udoka said of Kanter. “Keep the balls live. Even if he doesn’t understand, he takes two, three bodies to push them away. He played well against San Antonio the other night and I thought about leaving him at the end of that game. So us with him tonight, this unit was really rolling together and did a great job.

With everyone filling their roles around Tatum from a defensive standpoint, Boston’s second unit is starting to help the Celtics win more games in recent weeks after a slow start to the year. If Tatum continues to embrace the role of host as the teams take charge of him, some of Boston’s woes this season may start to fade. For now, it’s up to his teammates to make the defenses pay, as they did on Sunday night.

“It’s been tough for him,” admitted Marcus Smart, unlike his previous criticisms of Tatum this season. “He did a good job of really finding guys and we have to reward him for that. It will only open things up for him and Jaylen later in games when we and other players, including me, can reverse those shots.

The formula worked overnight on Sunday against a lackluster Raptors team. Whether the Celtics can keep him going in the midst of a very inconsistent start to the year will dictate whether they’re just a midfield team in the East or a much bigger threat.

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