BOSTON — Just a heads up: Joe Mazzulla is not Jayson Tatum.
Tatum shot 2-of-7 in the first two quarters, including 0-of-3 from inside the three-point arc. Middys weren’t falling, layups weren’t falling, and the Celtics’ offense descended into a sluggish state. The third quarter brought much of the same, as Minnesota took the lead heading into the fourth.
But by the end of regulation, Tatum had completely taken over. He exploded for a 14-point fourth quarter, 11 of which came in the final 6:23 of game time.
So, what did Mazzulla say to him to get him amped up? Was there an awe-inspiring speech? A reminder that he loves him? Any kind of screaming or hype-up message? Did Mazzulla simply tell Tatum to turn it on, and he did?
“No,” said Mazzulla. “I mean, he’s Jayson Tatum, I’m me. So, no.”
For Tatum and Mazzulla, it’s less about the rowdy ramp-up. Tatum knows he’s a superstar. Mazzulla knows it. The entire city of Boston knows it.
Instead, they have a constant dialogue about perspective.
“It’s conversations throughout the game,” Mazzulla said. “What’s going well? What’s not? Where can we improve? Why are we in [the spot] we’re in? I think what makes him great is he knows when it’s his time and when he does have to take over a game. So I didn’t necessarily tell him I have to do that, but we’re constantly in communication about the perspective.
“What pitch should we throw? Should we screen? Should we run off-ball? Should you pick-n-roll ball handle? What’s the matchup that’s gonna give us the best advantage for you to make a play for yourself or your team?”
With 3:35 to go in the fourth, the Timberwolves were up 106-97, a nine-point lead that marked their largest of the game. The Celtics brought the ball down the court, and Tatum had scored eight of their last 10 points.
As Jrue Holiday attacked the paint, Tatum made a mad dash to the rim, causing Jaden McDaniels to panic and follow him. That was his guy. But Tatum wasn’t going to score. That’s not what the team needed at that moment.
Instead, he screened Naz Reid, who was sagging in the paint, leaving Al Horford wide-open for a corner three. Bucket. Celtics within three.
“He had a couple of kick-outs, a couple of pin-ins for Al where he got the corner three,” Mazzulla said. “So again, it’s just not being defined by one thing, and it’s dominating the game by understanding how what pitch do I need to use this quarter, this half, this game. And our guys are starting to recognize that. I thought JT did a great job of that tonight.”
From there, the Celtics battled, always staying within striking distance of the Timberwolves. And starting at the 2:01 mark, Tatum scored six of the Celtics’ last nine points.
Tatum nearly sealed the deal at the buzzer in regulation, but the game went to overtime.
Once it did, Minnesota was cooked.
A Karl-Anthony Towns and-one was met with a Tatum transition-take-foul free throw and a subsequent bucket of his own. After a pair of Minnesota triples and four Jaylen Brown free throws, it was all Tatum.
He baited Naz Reid into a silly foul before torching Towns on a drive on the next possession. A Holiday steal immediately after led to a wide-open Tatum three in transition. He sunk it, and TD Garden went ballistic.
After starting 2-of-7 in the first half, Tatum scored 18 of the Celtics’ last 25 points and preserved their undefeated status at home.
Doubt never seeped into his mind. He was focused on the topic he and Mazzulla cover every night: Game management.
“It’s a long game. And every game presents different challenges,” Tatum said. “It’s not always going to go the way you want to. But just finding ways to kind of manage the game and, and finding your moments, and realizing when it’s time to be ultra-aggressive and take over, in a sense. I just kind of manage that throughout the night.”
Tatum saw a couple of buckets drop in the third quarter. And once he checked back in with 8:14 left in the game, they kept going down. He was forming a rhythm. But that’s not what got him back on track.
It was the desperate determination to win.
“Tonight was just, man, find a way to win,” Tatum said. “That’s what I just kept telling myself. Find a way to win this game.”