BOSTON – These were the moments Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum dreamed of, when the NBA was little more than fantasy, back when they were just two kids from St. Louis chasing basketball glory. Beal a sturdy, 6’ 3” two-guard with a jump shot coaches drooled over. Tatum a gangly, 6’ 8” forward with unlimited offensive potential. It was Beal, four years older, who made the first investment in Jayson Tatum, convincing his personal coach, Drew Hanlen, to take on Tatum when Tatum was just 13. He’s going to be better than me, Beal had been known to say, and on Tuesday, with Beal watching, Tatum gave the world a taste of why.
It was 50 points for Tatum in Boston’s 118-110 win in the opening round of the NBA’s play-in tournament. It was the kind of performance the Celtics needed. Boston, the No. 7 seed, limped into the play-in, losers of five of its last six, with talk of offseason changes lingering in the air. The Wizards, one of the NBA’s hottest teams in the final month, had Beal, runner-up for the NBA’s scoring title, and Russell Westbrook, with 19 triple-doubles in his last 23 games, clicking, playing with the confidence of a team much better than its seeding.
A breakout game from Tatum might have been the only thing that could stave off disaster in Boston.
A breakout game is what they got.
Tatum was brilliant. He was 14-32 from the floor—9-15 in the second half—5-12 from three and a perfect 17-17 from free throw line. He played 41 minutes, sneaking in quick breaks before extended television timeouts. He had 17 points in the first half, a performance TNT analyst/Atlanta Hawks owner/incoming USA Basketball czar Grant Hill deemed “quiet.” He had ten in the first 4 ½ minutes of the third quarter, flipping a two-point halftime deficit into an early 13-point second half lead.
“Tatum is a great player,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “Not a great young player. A great player. He’s going to be MVP of this league real soon.”
“He’s right about that,” Kemba Walker said when told of Brooks comments. “He was unbelievable. It ain’t new to me.”
This has been a snake bitten season in Boston, one marred early by injuries and COVID-related issues, with any lingering hopes seemingly dashed earlier this month, when All-Star forward Jaylen Brown went down with a season-ending wrist injury. Through it all Tatum pieced together his finest year, battling through a January bout with COVID that left him with breathing issues months later. “It’s hard to understand what it’s like coming back from something like that without having it, without being an athlete,” Tatum said. He averaged 26.4 points (a career-best), 7.4 rebounds (ditto) and 4.3 assists (same), earning a second straight All-Star berth.
Tatum wasn’t immune to criticism. Inconsistency plagued Boston’s season well before Brown’s injury. Tatum, a locker room leader, was often hard pressed to explain why. Questions about his leadership began to emerge. There are different ways to lead, Tatum insisted on Tuesday morning, after the Celtics shootaround. One, as he showed against Washington, is by example.
“Everybody is different,” Tatum said. “A lot of people want me to lead a certain way. That I should act a certain way … my demeanor, I’m much more reserved than that. I show up every day. I try to lead by example. I talk to guys all the time in the huddles and in the locker room. That’s just the way I approach it. That’s me. I’m going to be me.”
The good feelings may be short lived. Boston’s reward for winning is a trip to Brooklyn, where the Nets Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are rested and ready. Marcus Smart tweaked an ankle against Washington and defensive minded center Robert Williams couldn’t play more than a quick shift in the second half after reaggravating a foot injury.
If we’re being honest: This Nets series could be a bloodbath.
For one night, though, all was right in Boston. Tatum played like a superstar, Walker (29-points) backed him up and a sturdy Celtics defense smothered Washington’s three-point shooters (14.3%) and forced Russell Westbrook into an abysmal shooting night. Beal never wanted to be on the receiving end of a Tatum star turn, but even in the aftermath of a crushing defeat he couldn’t resist reminding people that he saw this coming. “He’s a special talent, man,” said Beal. “I’ve been saying it since he was in diapers.” For years Beal had told Tatum that it didn’t matter who was in front of him, that he can score on anyone, anywhere.
On Tuesday, against Beal and a parade of Wizards defenders, in a game with playoff level stakes in a season that had been slowly slipping away, Tatum did just that.