BOSTON — Out on the parquet, Jayson Tatum grew so tired of making 3-pointers during his pregame shooting routine that he figured he’d try banking a couple off the glass. He made both.
In the locker room, Terry Rozier sang Lil Wayne’s “Let the Beat Build” to himself. Abdel Nader and Guerschon Yabusele checked out girls on Instagram. Al Horford dropped a new book at his stall — Ian Thomsen’s “The Soul of Basketball,” the story behind LeBron James’ transformative 2010-11 season — before a reporter asked if this one required a Game 7 mentality to stay alive.
“I have a Game 5 mentality,” Horford answered. The Celtics were comfortable. They were home.
Across the hallway, LeBron was getting a massage in a cordoned-off room, laughing with his crew about something on somebody’s phone. He was loose. This is the greatest player alive, a guy who has destroyed two separate iterations of the Celtics since coming of age in 2010-11.
In Cleveland’s locker room, two doors down, the rest of the Cavaliers sat individually in their stalls, silently staring into a space unoccupied by the television replaying their decisive Game 4 victory in the corner. You hate to read into these things, but hindsight is 20/20 after a 96-83 win.
Back out on the court, I ran into an old friend who’s now on staff for another NBA team. I asked him the NBA’s impossible question: How the hell do you slow down the greatest player alive?
There were some tactical solutions to stopping LeBron, like not switching when you don’t have to and sending so-called “scram switches” to tap out smaller defenders on mismatches in the high post. The Celtics had some success with both tactics in the second half of Game 4. There was a broader solution — freeze out everybody else, make LeBron do the bulk of the work and pray a 33-year-old cyborg somehow loses steam. The Celtics employed this strategy in Game 2.
And then there’s the realistic solution: Hope LeBron James doesn’t come to destroy your team. With two wins in tow, there was a good chance he would smell blood in the water, knowing an eighth straight Finals berth was waiting back in Cleveland if he could quiet the Boston crowd.
“It’s almost like it depends on what mentality he brings,” like he could dictate the outcome by his level of focus, my friend said, “and I think he’ll be focused. He might have 15 in the first quarter.”
He had eight, Kevin Love had 10, and the Celtics led 32-19 after 12 minutes, thanks to solutions both tactical and broad. Brad Stevens reinserted Aron Baynes into the starting lineup, reestablishing the foundation of the NBA’s best defense. Cavs not named LeBron or Love combined for one point on 0-for-5 shooting in the opening frame, the mark of a defensive effort aided by Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue’s inexplicable decision to sit Kyle Korver for its entirety.
LeBron alternated between settling for long jumpers and attacking the rim, where if he missed, he conserved energy on defense by complaining to officials who had no interest in bailing him out, all while the Celtics stormed to an 18-2 fast-break margin. He committed one more turnover (6) than he had assists (5), recalling each one in painstaking detail afterward. Then, he similarly spent his postgame press availability alternating between throwing passive shade at teammates for their unpreparedness to play on the road and fending off questions about his own fatigue.
“He looked a little tired to me,” said Lue, “yes.”
“I had my moments, but I think everybody at this point is tired,” said James, who played all 82 games and a league-leading 3,026 regular-season minutes, before snapping back at a reporter who later asked if he had fallen ill. “I didn’t mention the fatigue. One of you guys did. I’m fine.”
The Celtics weren’t razor-sharp, either. They played lockdown defense with the sort of connectivity that they’ve yet to discover in Cleveland, but they shot 36.5 percent from the field as a team, despite manufacturing whatever look they wanted from the 3-point line to the basket.
There was one player who never tired of the moment — the same kid who was so comfortable before a pivotal Game 5 in the Eastern Conference finals opposite LeBron James that he was banking in 3’s for shits and giggles. Tatum finished with 24 points on 15 shots and four assists, which doesn’t begin to describe the threat he posed anywhere and everywhere on the court.
“I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games,” said Tatum, who added seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks in a defensive effort that was every bit as sound as his offensive precision. “I think that’s when I have the most fun, when things are on the line.”
C’s owner Steve Pagliuca made it a point of emphasis to find Tatum in the locker room after the game and praise his ability to withstand J.R. Smith’s clutching and grabbing on every cut. “Then, you finally hit him,” said Pagliuca. The message was clear: Tatum was not about to be bullied.
Neither were the rest of these Celtics. After Marcus Morris menacingly stood over Larry Nance Jr. when the C’s pushed their lead to 17 in the second quarter and said something nondescript — “I can’t say that on camera,” said Morris, “I definitely can’t say that on camera” — the Cavs center shoved him from behind. Every Celtic responded; the Cavaliers couldn’t be bothered.
A longtime NBA scout described to me after the game the levels the Celtics go to determine a player’s competitiveness, their willingness to work, their desire to be great. Statistical analysis be damned. They study how a player interacts with his coach in between plays, to find out how he’ll respond to instruction, and they’ll interview everybody down to the custodian, to find out what time the kid is showing up for work. Tatum fits that mold. Nobody knew he was going to be this great a shooter this soon, but the Celtics knew he was going to work his ass off to get there.
“I think that we misuse the word development sometimes,” said Stevens. “I think we’re in the business of enhancement. I think Jayson was ready to deal with everything that comes with this because of who he is and his family and all his coaches before, because he’s a very emotionally steady, smart player that was going to perform at a high level above his age. I don’t know that anybody could guess this as a rookie, but you knew he was going to be really good.”
In the locker room after a win that pushed LeBron to the brink of elimination, a shirtless Baynes quoted Fat Bastard from “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” telling a C’s staffer, “You think I’m sexy? I’ve got bigger titties than you.” The Celtics were comfortable. They were home.
Horford left his new copy of “The Soul of Basketball” in his locker, as the Celtics hope to pen a new ending to LeBron’s story on Friday night in Cleveland, putting a stop to his string of seven straight Finals that began with that transformative 2010-11 season covered in Thomsen’s book.
Across the hall, LeBron held court with a few reporters at his locker. While Kevin Love fielded questions about the failures of Cleveland’s supporting cast a few feet away, a reporter pleaded with James not to stretch his free agency so long it interrupted our summer vacation. “We shall see,” he said. “We shall see.” As he made his way to the podium, where another media horde awaited, ESPN’s Max Kellerman asked LeBron if the Cavs could win on the road in Game 7.
“We don’t have a choice,” said James. “We don’t have a f***ing choice.”
Further down the hallway, Tatum was making his way to the exit with the Morris brothers and Stephen Jackson when he saw his picture flash across ESPN on a graphic listing the most playoff points by a rookie in NBA history. His 312 points through 17 games trails only Elgin Baylor by 19 points, Alvan Adams by 29 and Lew Alcindor by 40. Tatum stopped and stared.
“Ooooooooohhhhhhh,” Tatum said in the hushed tone of a man impressed by himself.