Xavier Tillman stays ready, helps Celtics beat Mavericks in Game 3


Tillman was a part of the effort that allowed Luka Doncic to score 27 points on 27 shots.

Xavier Tillman stays ready, helps Celtics beat Mavericks in Game 3
Xavier Tillman blocked Luka Doncic twice in the Celtics’ Game 3 win. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Celtics didn’t have Kristaps Porzingis for Game 3 of the NBA Finals, but it didn’t matter in the end, partly because of the player who replaced him.

Xavier Tillman provided key minutes for the Celtics as their backup big on Wednesday, assisting with enough of a boost to lift Boston to a 106-99 win and take a 3-0 series lead. He only had three points in 11 minutes of action, but it was what he did on the defensive end that led the Celtics to outscore the Mavericks by nine when he was on the court in Game 3.

After a brief stint of action in the first quarter, Tillman blocked Luka Doncic’s layup when he was switched onto him in his first defensive possession of the second quarter. That helped set the tone for Tillman’s night on that end as the Mavericks scored just five points over his near four-minute stint in the second quarter.

The Celtics rode Tillman’s versatility again when they brought him on in the third quarter. Tillman recorded another block on Doncic after the Mavericks guard got him in a switch. Boston only allowed six points during the near-five-minute stretch Tillman was on the floor in the third quarter, helping the Celtics take a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter.

Tillman shared with NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin that he found out he was going to play in Game 3 when Porzingis was ruled out. Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla found value in what Tillman did with his former team to play him in Game 3.

“Memphis has used a similar game plan [against Dallas], so he was used to that,” Mazzulla told reporters. “I thought with that comfort level of playing against those guys for so long, he was going to be able to execute the things that we needed to execute. So, I thought he did a great job in our switching and did a great job in our screening, getting into our spacing.

“That’s what we talk about with those guys, is regardless of who is in, who is out, I trust the next man up because of the work they put in and the staff that prepares them.”

The Celtics’ decision to go to Tillman as their first big man off the bench on Wednesday was a little bit of a surprise. Luke Kornet had been the Celtics’ third-string big for much of the season even after they traded for Tillman in February. Tillman hadn’t played a minute in the NBA Finals and recorded just 50 minutes of action this postseason before Game 3, with much of his playing time coming in blowouts.

As Tillman seemingly jumped up the depth chart for Game 3, he said that “staying ready” is something he’s gotten used to since the Grizzlies drafted him in 2020.

“This is something that I’ve been preparing for, I guess, for a while now,” Tillman told reporters. “So, I was ready for the opportunity. They were kind of hinting at potentially if KP’s workout didn’t go well and he didn’t feel comfortable that I was going to have to step in today.”

As Mazzulla said, the matchup also helped Tillman see the floor in Game 3. Despite being listed as a forward, Tillman has a similar frame as Doncic. They’re both 6-foot-7, with Tillman having an edge in weight (245 pounds to Doncic’s 230).

Tillman said that he feels “very comfortable” in his switching abilities, believing it’s a reason why he always has to stay ready.

“I feel like switching is like my bread-and-butter defensively,” Tillman said. “That’s something that allows me to use my quick feet and my strength to be able to bump guys on versus being in drop coverage and having to use my vertical leap.

“Being able to switch and stuff like that is more catered for me. Being able to get subbed in and used for those opportunities, I feel like I can excel the majority of the time.”

Tillman’s performance earned him high marks from his teammates. Al Horford said Tillman was “amazing” while Jaylen Brown called him “great.”

Tillman’s only three points were also a highlight in Wednesday’s win. He drained a 3-pointer in the corner off a pass from Brown as the shot clock was winding down to give the Celtics a 13-point lead late in the third quarter.

Brown called the play a “divine experience.” Tillman, though, felt joy. The Mavericks’ bench was trash-talking him before the shot while the Celtics’ bench exploded in jubilation when the shot went down.

“To hear the bench going crazy on our end, guys like Svi [Mykhailiuk], Oshae [Brissett], and stuff like that, it was pretty awesome because those are my guys. Those are my [stay ready group] guys,” Tillman said. “Each day-in, day-out, we go to war with each other to try to better each other to be ready for whoever’s name gets called.

“So for them to celebrate with me is pretty cool.”

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