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Jayson Tatum’s defense a difference-maker in playoff opening victory

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Tatum was an all-around star to lead Boston to a victory.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

It’s easy to get lost in Jayson Tatum’s dazzling array of offensive moves that led to a career night in Monday’s postseason opening 109-101 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Tatum’s ability to score in a variety of ways was breathtaking. He scored on drives, canned jumpers and 3-pointers and most impressively, connected on difficult floaters en route to 32 points, the most number of points he has produced in 29 postseason games in his career.

But just focusing on what Tatum did on one end of the floor wouldn’t do his outing justice. Tatum’s performance was much more encompassing as he put together a complete, all-around showing and made as much as an impact on the defensive end as he did offensively by grabbing 13 rebounds and recording a game-high three blocks. Tatum also finished with the best plus-minus rating of any player on the court at plus-19.

“If I’m trying to be one of the best players in the league, defense has got to be just as important as scoring the ball,” Tatum said. “That’s what we build our culture on here with the Celtics. Taking pride in guarding, playing defense within the team dynamic. For me, just want to take the challenge and obviously, try to be as good as I can and effective on both ends to contribute to winning.”

From the outset, Tatum was engaged defensively, especially when it came to the defensive glass as 10 of his 13 boards came on that end. Tatum nearly registered a double-double by halftime due to his active rebounding, an improved skill that he lacked for a player his size when he first entered the NBA.

But with his sturdy, 6-foot-8, 204-pound frame, that can make him a defensive menace as he can contest and alter shots due to his length, Tatum has also morphed into one of the Celtics top rebounders — no other Celtic even sniffed double-digit rebounds versus the much more physically imposing 76ers.

While most of Tatum’s boards were indeed uncontested, he flashed quick, strong hands when the situation called for it to snare the ball away from the opposition. That was most important with nearly 30 seconds remaining in regulation and the 76ers trying to claw back into it down, 105-101, and with Alec Burks at the free-throw line.

Burks’ attempt rolled slowly off the rim and as Tatum went up to control the carom, he had to battle Joel Embiid for it. Advantage clearly Embiid. But Tatum used his athleticism and strong hands to take the ball away from Embiid’s grasp, tipping the ball over to his other hand before he finally securing the rebound in a crowd. It’s a play that won’t gain him the same adulation as his smooth turnaround jumper, but it’s just as important if he wants to be the leading man in Boston’s run through the playoffs.

Tatum also stymied Philadelphia’s offense by coming up with clutch blocks as he swatted away two attempts over the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. First, he didn’t allow Tobias Harris a clean look at the basket on a hard drive before sending Harris’ shot out of bounds.

But Tatum’s most impressive defensive play came with just under five minutes left and the Celtics protecting a slim, 96-91, lead. It’s a defensive sequence from Tatum that would make stalwart defender Marcus Smart jealous and one that should be stowed away as a prime example of exactly what Tatum is capable of defensively.

Tatum first works through an on-ball screen from Embiid as he picks up Josh Richardson from outside the arc. As Richardson works himself laterally into the paint, Tatum recovers, staying tight on Richardson and as Richardson goes up for a layup-attempt, Tatum blocks it off the backboard.

Tatum’s stellar block led to a breakout for the Celtics and ultimately Jaylen Brown sinking a back-breaking transition 3-pointer.

But it all started with Tatum and his defense. A phrase that has become more common as Tatum’s tremendous rise in play continues to come on both ends of the court.

“I thought he was unbelievable defensively the whole game,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Talking and helping and long in help (defense) and communicating and leading. He makes a huge impact on that end.”