You can kind of draw a line, tentatively at the moment because it will surely be moved later, but tentatively between the rest of Jayson Tatum’s playoff performances and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
As you’ll remember, Tatum went off in Game 7 for 51 points, which was just astonishing. He was getting plenty of criticism after scoring just seven points in a Game 2 loss and shooting 5-21 in Game 6, and starting off 1-14 before heating up late.
None of that matters much now because the focus is going to be on the greatness he showed in Game 7.
And for Miami, that poses a real problem.
No one questions Jimmy Butler’s toughness at this point, but like everyone at the end of a long season, he’s banged up. In his case it’s an ankle injury.
Normally he’d be the natural choice to defend Tatum. And if he can’t do it, who will Miami turn to?
Bam Adebayo says if he has to do it, he’ll do it, but he doesn’t sound thrilled about it. And once you get past the starters, it’ll get a lot more difficult. Caleb Martin? Kevin Love? Duncan Robinson?
It’s potentially a real problem for Miami, and that’s just on the surface with what we know to expect. But what about adjustments and innovations? What happens when Joe Mazzulla goes small? What happens if someone else - randomly Malcolm Brogdon, let’s say - gets hot?
It’s an interesting series to say the least. But here’s the thing.
Pat Riley made his reputation with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Showtime era and it was unbelievably glamorous. But underneath the glitz, LA played very, very good defense.
So did the Knicks when Riley coached there, and with Miami, now as team president, he continues to build around defense.
Make no mistake - Miami is a great defensive team and in basketball, defense usually dictates the terms of engagement. Think Baylor-Gonzaga for a good example, or NC State vs. Houston, or Duke vs. Wisconsin.
Just as impressive as the Heat defense, Riley has put together a team without a ton of star power. It’s kind of the opposite of Showtime in that regard.
Guarding Tatum is going to be critical, but you should keep this in mind too: Miami is a pretty old team. Udonis Hassles is retiring after the season; he’s 42. He’s not a huge factor anymore, but point guard Kyle Lowry is. He’s 37. Kevin Love is 34. Butler is 33. Victor Olapido is 31 and out with an injury. Cody Zeller is 30.
It’s impossible not to admire what Miami has accomplished so far, but is a team this grizzled ready to go the distance?
The defense will keep them competitive, at a minimum, but clearly, taking out Boston is going to be a lot tougher than knocking the New York Knicks out of the playoffs.
And if Tatum sustains his playing at a dramatically higher level as we saw in Game 7, it’s really going to be difficult.
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