ORLANDO — Jayson Tatum looked visibly irritated. Borderline furious.
Three minutes from the end of the second quarter, the Celtics had already given up 60 points to a young Magic team. Paolo Banchero, the first pick in the last NBA draft, had just passed Noah Vonleh for a bucket and a foul. Although Banchero started ineffectively on the court, he was starting to build more pace against Boston’s big men.
Tatum wanted to turn that off. He wanted to wake up his Celtics teammates. And he wanted to keep his team undefeated. So, with Banchero standing at the free throw line, Tatum demanded to keep the young Magic star.
“I’m not asking permission,” Tatum said after his team’s 126-120 win.
Tatum didn’t need to ask. When he made his feelings known, the Celtics complied with his wishes. He started Orlando’s next possession tied to Banchero on the low block. When Banchero touched the ball a play later, Tatum picked him up on the half court and harassed him. After staying with Banchero through several dribbling moves, Tatum stripped the ball from Banchero and kicked it out of bounds by Banchero’s leg.
The play appeared to energize the Celtics, who finished the half on a 10-4 surge before building another run early in the third quarter.
“We kind of left them comfortable,” Tatum said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, any NBA player that’s comfortable and hitting shots, starts playing with confidence, and then you’re ready for a baseball game. And that’s what happened tonight. And I felt like they were just too comfortable at the start. So I decided to keep it. I’m proud of the defense, like all of us.
Even in a road arena, Tatum left the Amway center field to chant MVP after finishing with 40 points on 14-for-21 shooting. In addition to scoring the ball, the insistence on defending Banchero did more for showing Tatum’s early-season mindset. In the second leg from a kick-off, he could have left the Celtics side but refused to let them settle for a weak effort. In some ways, he wasn’t just setting the tone for Saturday night, but for the entire season. With a request, Tatum made it clear that every game matters to him. That he will not tolerate any slippage. That defeat in the final shaped his approach to this season and convinced him to take everything seriously.
Tatum then scored nine points in the first 2:31 of the third quarter, giving the Celtics more control. They couldn’t get away from the Magic but felt happier with their execution in the second half.
“Just better ball pressure,” Joe Mazzulla said. “Our pick-up points. I think we did a great job in the second half increasing our pressure and playing that way consistently.
Malcolm Brogdon agreed.
“Super important (winning),” Brogdon said. “It’s a young team we played against tonight, but they have talent. But they don’t have a lot of expectations when it comes to victory. It was therefore important for us to achieve this victory. It was, I think, a bigger win than Miami, just to show that we are mature, experienced and ready to take the next step this year.
Mazzulla actually looked happy that the Celtics had a bumpier run against Orlando. After two enchanting victories to open the regular season, against two quality opponents, he wanted the players to understand that some evenings will be more difficult. Sometimes another team will play a great game. Sometimes the Celtics just won’t have their best gear. During these games, they will still have to find their way back to who they want to be. Mazzulla thought the Celtics had shown “great leadership” in regaining their physicality after the slow defensive start.
“Just because we had two good games, we can’t create this expectation that things will always go our way,” Mazzulla said. “And that we will always feel comfortable. It will not be so. I think our guys did a great job of staying balanced and balanced. They challenged each other. And we know exactly what we have to do. I think part of being a great team is realizing when we’re playing well and when we’re not, and then how to get back to being ourselves. And I think we did a great job at half-time.
Mazzulla called Blake Griffin’s second-half dive after a loose ball the highlight of the game. Derrick White scored 27 points, including a rare dunk that surprised some of his teammates. Tatum helped turn the tide but knew the Celtics needed his energy. For him, the move showed growing affirmation. He certainly wouldn’t have demanded to keep a player early in his career, but now understands how much his actions can impact the rest of the Celtics. That’s the power of fame, for better or for worse.
Tatum hasn’t always stopped Banchero, who is considered a budding star. The two know each other quite well. As a fellow Duke product, Tatum said he’s “spoken frequently” to Banchero and is “extremely happy” to see the 19-year-old rookie’s success. Noting Banchero’s rare combination of size, bulk and ability to “do it all on the floor”, Tatum said he thinks highly of the youngster not just as a player but as a person. It just didn’t matter to Tatum once the Celtics started to falter on Saturday. He knew he had to do something to revive his team’s defense. With the Celtics in their worst defensive streak of the young season, Tatum moved in to defend Banchero.
“That’s how you show respect,” Tatum said. “I’m not going to let things be easy. I will compete. You have to tackle someone, whether they’re 19 or 30. No one bothered me the first year.
Nobody’s going to take it easy on Tatum now. Its good. In most cases, it is he who sets the terms of the challenge today.
(Photo of Jayson Tatum battling the Magic’s Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr. for a stray shot in the second quarter: Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA Today)
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