One thing that cannot be debated about this difficult Celtics season is the ascension of Jayson Tatum into a bona fide superstar.
Just three months ago in Washington, Tatum could barely breathe during a game because of the aftereffects of COVID-19 and scored 6 points. He was slow to recover from the virus but endured the physical effects and continued his rise to prosperity.
When the Celtics desperately needed a standout performance, Tatum shined on the brightest stage Tuesday night, against his mentor, Wizards star Bradley Beal, bringing some playoff magic to TD Garden with his prowess.
Tatum scored 50 points in the Celtics’ 118-100 win as they escaped the unwanted play-in tournament and advanced to the real tournament.
“We knew what was at stake, I knew I was going to play a lot,” Tatum said. “I guess I’m proud of myself, trying to get back to full strength. It took me some time. It’s hard to understand what it’s like to come back from something like that and get back to yourself without being an athlete. It’s a process and I guess you can say I came a long way.”
Boston will play perhaps the best team in the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets, starting Saturday in New York. And it advanced here because Tatum was unstoppable in all facets, attacking the rim, splashing 3-pointers, and getting to the free-throw line.
The masterful feat was exactly what the Celtics needed. They were considered underdogs in this game, a team that limped to the finish of the regular season with a .500 record playing a Washington club that won 17 of its final 23 games and boasts two perennial All-Stars in Beal and Russell Westbrook.
Tatum bested both and it wasn’t close. He scored 32 points in the second half, when the Celtics punched the Wizards, responding from a 2-point halftime deficit to lead by as many as 22. Beal, playing on a gimpy hamstring, had little response other than a couple of mid-range jumpers.
Westbrook missed 12 of 18 shots and didn’t come close to applying his usual triple-double imprint.
With teammate Jaylen Brown watching from the bench with his surgically repaired wrist in a cast, Tatum scored 44 points in the final three quarters, going 12 for 24 from the field and 17 for 17 from the free-throw line. He knew the Wizards had no one who could adequately defend him.
Beal tried with that bad hamstring. Rui Hachimura was too slow. Westbrook was too small. Davis Bertans had no chance.
It was the type of performance that quiets naysayers who believe Tatum should be better at this point. The running joke is that he’s only 19, but 23 isn’t much older and he is proving to be a generational cornerstone, and he will eventually work through his flaws.
He does not lead vocally very often. He is a ‘by example’ guy. But there were plays where he showed true, genuine emotion. with With TD Garden as raucous as it has been all season with nearly 5,000 fans, Tatum fed into the atmosphere by screaming after a 3-pointer that prompted a Wizards timeout in the fourth quarter.
Tatum said earlier Tuesday that he is among the Celtics’ leaders, but he’s not going to force a style that is not organic. He can lead in his own preferred way.
“Everybody is different, right?” he said after the team’s shootaround. “And I’m sure the people who watch the games and, you know, give their opinion on what happens kind of want you to be a certain way, and think that if you’re yelling and screaming and stuff like that, that necessarily makes you a leader. It works for some guys.
“I’m certain that people think that since I’m not overly emotional or do things like that, they can kind of question whatever they want to question. Leadership comes in all different types of fashions. I just do it in my own way.”
Celtics fans should just enjoy his growing process, the fact Danny Ainge was astute enough four years ago to pass on Markelle Fultz and draft Tatum when the consensus was that Fultz was a better player.
Tatum has built himself up physically and has displayed the relentless desire for greatness, which isn’t always the case with talented players. The matchup with Beal is bittersweet for him because they are so close, but Tatum showed no mercy for his buddy. He was the better player. He was going to make sure the Celtics didn’t have to deal with any more of this play-in foolishness and get his club to the first round.
It’s been a tumultuous season in Boston. And the expectations were the Celtics would stumble in this play-in tournament, perhaps losing two in a row to end their season. But the team attacked this game with the energy necessary for critical games, something that hasn’t always been the case this season.
Tatum led with his play in the second half. The Celtics were 7-for-24 shooting and missed all 12 3-point attempts in a porous second quarter. Either they were going to come out with fire in the third quarter or allow the rejuvenated Wizards to control the game.
After Kemba Walker hit three 3-pointers to give the Celtics back the lead, Tatum respond with two stretches of 10 consecutive Boston points, including the final 10 to provide a cushion they would never relinquish.
Meanwhile, to get proper rest, Tatum sat on the Celtics bench during the longer television timeouts and didn’t rise to return to the floor until it was nearly time to resume play. He appears fully healthy after dealing with the virus, and the Celtics are going to need every bit of his production to compete with the Nets.
“He’s going to play over 40 (minutes) a lot, let’s put it that way,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve been through a lot, so we’re hardened in a lot of ways. Our backs have been against the wall for most of year. To have to win to get into the playoffs, just earn the right to play the most talented team that’s been assembled since I’ve been in the NBA, it takes a lot of effort, it takes a lot of togetherness.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.