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To better their offense, Celtics must get Jayson Tatum in the middle of the court

Against Miami’s vaunted zone defense and even when guarded man-to-man, Jayson Tatum’s bag would run deep if Boston could get him in the mid-post more consistently.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics are down 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals in part because of their inability to consistently penetrate the Miami Heat’s now famous 2-3 zone defense. The team with several creative scorers has look stagnant and dumbfounded against a wall of defenders and now finds itself one game from elimination.

‘’At the end of the day, we got to find a way,’’ Kemba Walker said after the 112-109 loss in Game 4. ‘’That’s really all we can do. We can do it. It’s about pride. It’s about wanting to do it. Next game we got to come out and show that.’’

Boston has opted to attack Miami’s zone from the perimeter, where the Heat stack stud wing defenders Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala to cut off penetration. To have any chance at this series, Boston has to think differently by letting their best player go to work where the zone is weakest.

Zone defenses of any formation are about assigned areas of coverage over individual matchups. But perhaps the best way to force those assignments to be abandoned is through an inside-out approach that collapses the defense, creating a chain reaction that smart and unselfish teams know how to take advantage of.

Get a player at the nail and defenses automatically swarm the most vulnerable spot of their zone. The more of a threat that player is to score on the catch, the more attention he draws and the more crevices his presence opens up.

Jayson Tatum was that option several times over the course of Game 4 and the shots he manufactured should find their way into Brad Stevens’ game plan for Game 5.

In the play below, Tatum gets the ball just below the free throw line as Bam Adebayo steps up to guard him. There’s no need for Crowder to do anymore than stunt Tatum with an All-Defensive Second Team selection handling the brunt work.

Instead, Crowder turns his back completely to midcourt on Tatum’s catch, leaving Marcus Smart unattended at the top of the arc. He fails to bring a hard double and softly follows Tatum as he finds his way to the right block. By the time Crowder fully commits to the double, he’s in too deep, enough for Tatum to find Smart for an open triple.

Looking further at the play, Bam’s unofficial man Robert Williams III’s positioning in the dunker spot forces Tyler Herro to slide down from the left corner and Iguodala to split the difference between Smart and Gordon Hayward. It’s indicative to how pulling just a single defender out of their area can lead to so much more.

Smart missed the shot as part of a miserable 1-of-8 performance from downtown, but play designs aren’t meant to create points, just provide the best opportunities to put them on the board.

This next play once again takes advantage of Williams’ presence near the rim. Miami’s top-side defenders are in an aggressive stance fully above the 3-point arc. The nail couldn’t be more wide open.

Tatum sees the open space and fills it. At this point, Bam has to pick his poison: leave the Timelord free on the baseline or contest Tatum’s 15-footer. Tatum failed to score through the first half but awoke with two 3-pointers to that point in the third. Giving him an uncontested foul-line jumper could further get the ball rolling. Stepping up and contesting meant leaving Williams open for a lob, dump off, and in this case, unchecked for an offensive rebound.

Adebayo gives a brief step forward to throw Tatum off as he missed the jumper. Maybe Tatum didn’t expect to be that wide open against a defense that’s forced Boston to work for every shot. The ease with which he created the bunny look simply by moving into open space is what’s worth noting.

Even against man coverage, few things are scarier to opposing defenses than a three-level scorer in a triple-threat position near the top of the key. The options for the offensive player are limitless while defenses can only try to follow close behind.

Tatum can pull up anytime against Andre Iguodala. Instead, he uses a right jab and a subtle stutter step to maneuver around the former Finals MVP for the layup. He was helped by Daniel Theis’ clear out of Duncan Robinson, but it’s Tatum who once again got to the spot before exuding the patience and craftiness that created the high-efficiency look.

“At this point, it comes down to this for Boston,” wrote CelticsBlog’s own CoachSpins before Game 3. “They need to either punish Miami for not guarding the middle, or put someone there that forces them to guard it, then creating open looks elsewhere.”

That someone has at times been Smart. Though as CoachSpins also pointed out, Smart is not the most primed decision maker and lacks the gravity needed to contort Miami’s defense.

Tatum is the player who strikes the most fear into Miami’s defense with an elite mesh of size, handles, and shot-making abilities. Therefore, only he can force the Heat to search for the answers they’ve been able to avoid giving through the first four games.

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