Friday was a byproduct of those sweltering St. Louis summers, when young Jayson Tatum, nothing but arms, legs and a baby face, was being pushed so much by his father, Justin, there were times he just wanted to quit.
The other side of Tatum wanted to prove to his old man how good of a player he was. There remains inside Tatum — despite his two All-Star appearances, despite his ascension into an elite player, despite being considered the next great Celtic — the side that seeks to quiet doubters, that still seeks full acceptance.
Perhaps it’s that desire that pushes him to improve, that gives him the confidence or bravado to take the ball in clutch moments and score on whoever is guarding him.
Tatum was at his absolute best Friday at TD Garden, when the Celtics played one of worst halves of the season and then followed it with one of their best. Tatum tied Larry Bird for the franchise record with 60 points, carrying his teammates when they were listless in the first half and then catapulting them when they joined him to rally from a 32-point deficit.
The Celtics beat the Spurs 143-140 in overtime because of Tatum’s relentlessness. He didn’t attempt a series of wild shots or contested 3-pointers. He attacked the rim. He shot over overmatched defenders in the midrange. He got to the free throw line and, oh yeah, he mixed in the occasional 3-ball.
It was a brilliant performance, a testament to Tatum’s true offensive talent. He is 23 but it seems as if he’s been the face of this franchise for 10 years. He has his share of critics, especially during this trying Celtics season, but Friday was a reminder that the Celtics have an untouchable player; the type of star who can eventually led teams to championships.
“That boy,” teammate Jaylen Brown said, “is destined for greatness.”
His growth has been swift but also bumpy at times. He has dealt with the after effects of COVID-19, which have taken a physical toll on his endurance. He believes he doesn’t get enough respect from officials. So a few weeks ago, Tatum decided to snatch that respect by attacking the basket and drawing fouls.
He finished with 109 free throw attempts in 15 April games. Tatum’s aggression is making scoring easier because he’s scoring easy points. It’s a part of the development of an elite scorer. It’s a process that can’t be expedited. Tatum has all the tools to be an all-time great Celtics scorer. He’s long, athletic and can shoot from long range. He’s crafty with his drives and he has a nice touch at the rim.
On Friday, his full arsenal was on display and the most impressive aspect was the Celtics needed every one of his points. After the game, the Tatum’s teammates splashed him with water in celebration and he took a photo holding up the number “60” on a white sheet of paper, similar to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game 59 years ago.
“It was a special night,” he said. “Playing with guys you enjoy being around who are genuinely happy for your success.”
After the game he also called Justin, who offered his congratulations and expressed great pride in his son. Tatum admitted that Justin’s harsh coaching style during his youth strained their relationship. The game wasn’t fun, and only in the past few years have they truly become a father-son in which dad only offers encouragement and support.
“Everybody knows how close I’ve been with my mom and she’s my biggest fan,” Tatum said. “My dad was the one who introduced me to basketball but his tactics were extreme sometimes and he for sure pushed me when I was younger and we had some rocky times because of how hard he pushed me.”
Despite being a grown man, All-Star and now 60-point scorer, Tatum said dad’s approval and encouragement remains important. Tatum’s journey to success was not always smooth, but hindsight has allowed him to appreciate his father’s vision.
“Even before tonight, just to hear him tell me he’s proud of me, it means a lot,” Tatum said. “Just because he never expressed that when I was younger. Not that he wasn’t proud of me but that was his way of telling me I need to do more, to do better.
“It drove me in a way to prove him wrong and now just to see where I started and where I’m at, obviously a long way to go, I wouldn’t be here if not for (those times).”
Tatum said he’s driven by his own personal expectations. He has heard his share of criticism, even from former Celtic Kendrick Perkins, who said he lacked leadership during the team’s difficult times. Tatum’s demeanor doesn’t necessarily allow him to be that vocal leader. He instead leads by example and on nights such as Friday, nearly literally carrying his team on his shoulders to prosperity.
“I have the utmost and highest expectations for myself and where I’m trying to get to and where I want to be when it’s all said and done,” he said. “I know I’m young and I know I have a super-long way to go, but I’m determined to get there.”