LOS ANGELES — Jayson Tatum’s ascension and the Celtics’ improvement are no coincidences. The two-time All-Star is playing his best basketball of the season and the Celtics are on a surge heading to their trip-ending game against the Lakers.
Tatum sank the clinching 3-pointer with 7.8 seconds left in Tuesday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers, drawing the raves of Portland’s Carmelo Anthony and Damian Lillard afterwards.
Tatum is averaging 29.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 41.3 percent 3-point shooting in seven April games. Yet, he wanted to show regard for his more heralded elders.
“I was in middle school and high school when those guys were in the league,” he said. “I got the upmost respect for both of them, everything that they’ve accomplished. Especially what Dame’s been doing in recent years has been remarkable. Melo was one of my idols, besides Kobe [Bryant], that was one of my favorite players. I wanted to be like him.
“Any time I get to talk to them or see them or play against them, I don’t take that for granted knowing I used to watch film of him and study his moves when I was in high school and middle school. That’s one of the things that I enjoy is getting respect from a guy that I used to look up to, still look up to. That means a lot.”
Tatum’s resurgence has not been lost on his teammates.
“We’re going to need that from him and he knows it,” guard Marcus Smart said. “And he’s just continues to come out there and do that for us. We all see it. We’re all witnessing his growth continue to go up. That’s why he continues to learn the game and continue to find ways to improve himself.
Like many of his teammates, Tatum said the Celtics are more talented and are better than what they have played this season. With 17 games left entering Thursday night, the club still has a chance for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t think our record shows what kind of team that we are,” Tatum said. “I think people know that. It’s been a weird year. We’ve dealt with a bunch of things; a lot of guys, tested positives, certain guys have been injured. For the most part, most of the guys are healthy. We’re for sure trending in the right direction.”
The Celtics have been emphasizing defense in this recent stretch, trying to become more consistent on getting stops and offering more resistance at the 3-point line.
“Kind of get back to how we define ourselves and that’s on the defensive end,” Tatum said. “Get it back to playing Celtics defense, what we’re known for. We’ll make shots and things like that but we have to get back to defending at a high level if you want to continue to compete.”
Smart being smart
The past few games have been sparkling for Smart, who has made big defensive plays and also hit a couple of key buckets during the winning streak. Smart’s defense against Lillard was the key to the Celtics’ victory.
“We’re all holding each other accountable. Everybody, on both ends of the floor. Just trying to play basketball the right way,” he said. “It comes down to defense. We’re not always going to score the ball well every night. We have to be able to go and get some stops, especially in the crunch times. We have to be able to hold each other accountable and it starts with me, being the defensive leader on this team. If guys see me holding myself accountable, then there should be no excuse for anybody else.”
Smart has had an uneven season, reflective of many players affected by inconsistency, injury and COVID protocol. Smart missed a month with a calf strain and returned with an erratic stretch that included a couple of blooper plays in a loss to the Pelicans.
He said he has heard the detractors that say he’s not 100 percent healthy or has taken a step back defensively after making first-team All-defense in 2019-20.
“Just starting to get back to where I was, letting people know not to forget who I am on the defensive end and what I do,” Smart said. “I’ve heard it. I’ve heard talks of me not being able to [play as well], the injury affected me. I lost a step. I know what I can do. The league knows what I can do. That’s just extra motivation for me to go out there and prove it.
“I know I’m a great player so just continue to go out and be that great player. Not for me but for this team. I need to be that defensive stopper that I know I am.”
Smart and his efforts are appreciated by his teammates.
“We respect him. We respect everything that he’s accomplished and what he brings to the table,” Tatum said. “When somebody has your respect, they’re going to listen to you. Good times or bad. We know he means well, so like a lot of other guys when Smart is talking, we’re going to listen. We know it’s for the best and everybody respects him.”
Robert Williams out
The Celtics were without center Robert Williams, who was scratched because of knee soreness … The Lakers were even more hobbled. Besides LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf), newly acquire Andre Drummond (toe) and Markieff Morris (ankle) were listed as out. Point guard Dennis Schröder (foot) was a game-time decision. Lakers coach Frank Vogel added that Davis has been cleared to practice and could return in a few days … Thursday was the first game at Staples Center since the pandemic that allowed fans. There were 2,000 people allowed into the arena, all required to wear masks.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.