MILWAUKEE — Jayson Tatum watched his season slip to the brink Wednesday as a bystander, first in a crowded left corner and then alone on the right wing, as the Celtics’ final possessions imploded without him in a devastating loss.
So on Friday night, Tatum took Boston’s fate into his hands. And with another Bucks comeback, roaring crowd and the potential end of his season all closing in, he willed and scored his way to a Game 7.
Tatum poured in 46 points and never allowed Boston to trail over the last three quarters of a 108-95 win in an elimination Game 6 at Fiserv Forum. Tatum outdueled Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who paired his 44 points with 20 rebounds and threatened to erase a sizable deficit in the fourth quarter, just as he had in Game 5. Instead, Tatum answered with four straight baskets to push the Celtics ahead by eight with 5:40 left, and they led comfortably the rest of the way.
“It’s why he gets paid the big bucks. That’s it right there, for moments like that,” said Marcus Smart, who assisted on a pair of Tatum’s late baskets. “I was telling him the whole game, ‘Just be you, man,’ and he was. That’s what he gets paid to do. That’s what we lean on him to do.”
Game 7 will tip off Sunday at 3:30 p.m. inside TD Garden, its winner meeting Miami on Tuesday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
On Friday, Jaylen Brown pocketed 22 points and Smart scored 21, both playing more than 40 minutes. Jrue Holiday (17 points) and Pat Connaughton (14) were the only other Bucks to finish in double figures.
The Celtics dictated terms early with a small lineup that effectively shelved Bucks center Brook Lopez for most of the night. Free to roam the half-court, Boston returned to the slash-and-kick offense that whirred in Milwaukee days earlier and pulled out a Game 4 win. Despite their lack of size, the Celtics remained competitive on the boards, yielding just seven offensive rebounds and grabbing eight of their own.
The C’s also finished 17-of-43 from 3-point range, where they launched almost half their shots, and held the Bucks to 24% shooting.
With Tatum sitting to start the fourth quarter, Milwaukee nearly vaporized a 13-point deficit within three minutes. Antetokounmpo even cashed a rare 3-pointer to claw back to 85-81 near nine minutes remaining, then Connaughton answered a Tatum score with a reverse layup that felt like the tremble that precedes avalanche. But Tatum, who had rested just 90 seconds before the fourth, held strong.
He hit the Bucks with a right corner jumper, two left-wing 3s and a spinning fadeaway from the right block on four of the next five possessions. After a needed timeout, Brown began shouldering the heavy-lifting with a 3-pointer of his own, and Smart drilled a long-range jumper in Antetokounmpo’s eye for a 100-87 lead at 4:20 to go.
The Celtics cruised from there, tip-toeing around the pitfalls of slow-starting possessions and isolation offense that dogged them in Game 5.
"That's something we talked about," Tatum said. "We watched film and we learned from it. That was a topic of discussion coming into this game, and I think just having that self-awareness constantly talking about it, and Ime did a great job of calling the right things, making sure we were moving and not just playing iso."
Ultimately, the Celtics' shooting touch never left them.
They staked an immediate lead by firing nine straight 3-pointers after tip-off, a sharpshooting display Antetokounmpo countered by pounding out 17 first-quarter points and pinning two early fouls on Grant Williams. Milwaukee claimed its first lead at 20-17 on a transition 3 from Holiday, who followed Antetokounmpo's first triple. Minutes later, after five straight points from Smart, Tatum stepped into an above-the-break 3 that lifted the Celtics to a 28-26 advantage heading into the second quarter.
Smart immediately washed the taste of Game 5 out of his mouth, scoring 14 in the first quarter alone.
"We were trying to just take what they gave us, and that was the 3," Smart said. "We were hitting them early on, and it helped us out later down in the fourth quarter and the second half. The lane was starting to open up because we were hitting those shots."
Tatum's hot shooting and playmaking paved the way for a 15-4 Boston run that extended midway into the second. Next, as Tatum cooled, the Bucks made up ground with another Holiday 3 and Antetokounmpo flushing a transition dunk over Smart. The score even survived a coach's challenge, and leading 42-35, he threw down a thunderous slam over a late-arriving Williams.
But the Bucks' thunder faded quickly.
Derrick White drew Antetokounmpo's third foul inside the final minute, then canned two foul shots to give himself nine points to show for a terrific first half. Having limited every Milwaukee player outside of Antetokounmpo and Holiday to 10 combined points, the Celtics carried a 53-43 lead into the locker room.
Boston's edge grew to a game-high 18 points midway through the third quarter, when a fourth foul on Antetokounmpo curbed some of his ferocious drives. Meanwhile, Tatum led a balanced scoring effort that would eventually buy him enough time and cushion to bury the Bucks and return home with a win.