What the Celtics should be thankful for this Thanksgiving is Jayson Tatum doesn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of Luka Doncic.
The Celtics witnessed the greatness of Doncic, who was unstoppable Wednesday at TD Garden with his array of stepback jumpers, spinning floaters, and 3-point shots. The Dallas Mavericks All-Star put on an absolute show, causing defenders such as Grant Williams to shake their heads in disgust and helplessness each time he splashed a jumper with a hand in his face and forearm in his back.
What was evident, however, is that Tatum is just as much of an offensive force as Doncic, but he doesn’t need to create the same constant magic to lead his team to victory. The Mavericks decided to trap Tatum in the second half, requiring him to either pass to an open teammate or take on the double with aggressive drives.
Tatum did a combination of both and his teammates greatly aided him in the Celtics’ 125-112 victory, an impressive response to Monday’s lousy performance against the Bulls.
And while Doncic scored 40 points (42) for the fourth time this season, the Mavericks are just 9-8. At times he was the definition of a one-man team, keeping the Mavericks from getting completely obliterated after they fell behind by double digits and leading a charge to cut a 27-point deficit to 9.
But the performance was a classic case of not having enough help. The other four Mavericks starters combined for 31 points. When Doncic did make the crisp pass to an open teammate, they turned his dimes into pennies by missing open shots. The Mavericks have yet to place a capable supporting cast around the brilliant Doncic and they lost second-leading scorer Jalen Brunson to the Knicks in the offseason.
A primary reason Doncic may receive more MVP votes than Tatum is because he has more responsibility. The Mavericks are an entertaining bunch but aren’t serious contenders for the NBA championship because they surrounded Doncic with a bunch of role players who don’t always play their roles.
Six Celtics scored in double figures as they led for the final 44 minutes, 59 seconds, and while Tatum almost matched Doncic with 37 points, he didn’t have to work as feverishly to help the Celtics maintain their lead. The Celtics are winning because every player has embraced his role and also flourished.
“I definitely enjoy being on this team and playing with other really talented guys and how deep of a team we are,” Tatum said. “It makes it easier on all of us to have that depth. We play nine or 10 guys and I think that’s what makes us really special and I’m grateful to have the teammates that I have.”
There is a mutual admiration between the two superstars. When Tatum blocked Doncic’s layup, he screamed, “I told you so!” at Doncic, who responded, “Did you really think I was going to dunk that?”
“Obviously one of the best players in the league, a special talent,” Tatum said. “He has my respect, I like competing against guys like that.”
When asked about the exchange with Tatum, Doncic slyly said Tatum was talking to his teammates on the Celtics bench. But he offered major kudos to one of his contemporaries.
“He’s an amazing player,” Doncic said. “He’s shown that he’s not the future face of the league but he already is. It’s always fun to play [against] those kind of guys.”
The Mavericks showed the ultimate respect for Tatum by trapping him in the halfcourt to get the ball out of his hands. The increased attention prompted Tatum to make more plays in the second half, collecting three assists with one turnover in nearly 19 minutes. The beneficiary was Jaylen Brown, who scored 18 of his 31 points after halftime.
The Celtics don’t necessarily need Tatum to score nearly 40 points per game every night, they need him to score enough to force defense into making the difficult choice of doubling him and leaving a teammate open.
“We’ve got to make ourselves available [when Tatum is doubled] and drive,” Brown said. “When they got two on the ball, that means there’s an advantage on the backside. If teams want to double Jayson or want to double me we should be having a field day on the backside. We’ve just got to be ready.”
The Celtics hope their balance and ability to shoot from the 3-point line will win out on most nights. In the previous matchups with Doncic, the Celtics have allowed the Mavericks to stay close and then Luka Magic happens in the final seconds. This time they built a big enough lead that he was incapable of mounting a complete comeback.
Doncic is one of the league’s most exciting players, even though he rarely dunks or soars above the rim. He has the complete offensive arsenal. He’s big enough to post any defender and has enough touch to shoot from any angle.
It was a dazzling performance but again, it was pretty much a one-man show. One-man shows rarely have staying power deep into the playoffs. Tatum is grateful that he has a talented enough supporting cast for the Celtics to be a perennial championship threat.