WASHINGTON — Jayson Tatum promised Friday he would snap out of his career-worst 3-point skid, saying, “We’ll be able to talk about something else.”
Well, it’s time to talk about something else.
With a large contingent of Celtics fans raucously cheering every basket, Tatum put on a 3-point barrage Sunday at Capital One Center, splashing a career-best 9 of 14 attempts from 3-point range en route to a season-high 51 points in the Celtics’ 116-87 runaway win.
Tatum entered Sunday having missed 20 consecutive 3-pointers, going 0 for 17 in his last three games, a span of eight days without making a long-range shot. Seventy-five seconds into the game, Tatum drained his 3-point attempt and, suddenly, he was playing Pop-a-Shot with 28-footers.
“The way to fix it, is you keep putting in the work and as a scorer, to see that first three go in, you get [the burden] off your back,” Tatum said. “Obviously when you get in that zone, there’s nothing like it. You just keep going.”
The Celtics snapped a two-game losing streak with one of their most impressive performances of the season, and Tatum was unstoppable, picking his spots for 3-point swishes and mixing in an array of drives. He also finished with 10 rebounds and 7 assists.
Tatum scored 31 first-half points on 11-for-14 shooting and six 3-pointers as the Celtics raced to a 60-45 lead at the break. The same shots he clanged off the rim during a five-game shooting slump, a woeful stretch during which he went 37 for 97, were now rattling through the hoop, prompting his Celtics teammates to feed him the ball as he wore out Washington’s defenders.
Tatum scored 17 more in the third quarter, including a stretch where he split two defenders for a soaring two-handed dunk, and then added back-to-back threes for an 89-62 lead and his 48th point late in the third period. Coach Ime Udoka sat Tatum to begin the fourth quarter and the star placed large ice packs on each knee, an indication his night was over.
The Celtics extended their lead to 23, but after having blown several large leads, including an 11-point advantage with six minutes left Friday, Udoka reinserted Tatum with 7 minutes, 21 seconds left, much to the delight of the Celtics fans sitting behind the bench.
Tatum said he was fully aware he was 2 points from 50. The crowd cheered loudly when he went to the scorer’s table to check in. A few minutes in, he scored his 50th on a floater. It was his third career 50-plus point regular season game and first of the season. He capped it with his 51st point on a technical foul shot.
The fact the same shots Tatum was releasing the past week were suddenly falling wasn’t lost on him. He maintained his confidence throughout this skid.
“I wasn’t discouraged or anything, shots I’ve been taking my whole life and I’ve scored 50 a handful of times and those times you’re missing shots, you know what you’re capable of,” Tatum said. “Sometimes you’ve got to laugh it off. It’s as simple as sometimes you don’t make shots. The few phone calls I did get, people were making sure that I wasn’t discouraged, that I wasn’t down.
“I’m always the same person whether I miss 20 straight or score 51. Just on to the next one.”
Sunday also marked the return of Marcus Smart from a six-game absence with a quadriceps injury and COVID-19 protocol. He finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and was a plus-36 in nearly 31 minutes.
Prior to the game, he pulled Tatum aside for a pep talk.
“He told me not to worry about the 20 threes in a row that I missed, just to keep shooting,” Tatum said. “They need me to be myself and they’re going to fall and they did.”
Said Smart: “I told Jayson, ‘I know you ain’t hit a three in about 20 attempts. Just keep shooting. I’m going to make sure I find you, going to get you going, get you open. Shoot the ball and don’t think about it. Don’t worry about anything else.’
“To be able to be part of this night is tremendous for us and for him and we’re proud of him. We need more of it.”
For the Celtics, it was a needed response after blowing an 11-point lead Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Tatum was 0-for-7 from the 3-point line and his last made three came in the first quarter of the Jan. 15 win over the Chicago Bulls.
Tatum would get an array of open looks over the past few games, missing 20 in a row, including the potential game-winner Friday with 6.7 seconds left. He appeared at ease after that game, convinced his slump would soon cease.
“We put him in a lot of actions and we got some favorable matchups,” Udoka said, “and so we kept going to him knowing he was in a good groove.”
It was Tatum’s best individual game under Udoka, and while Tatum has experienced a difficult season, Udoka said he fully comprehends and appreciates his talent and potential.
“First thing is his consistency, and that’s in his approach, his preparation, his work ethic and everything he does every day,” Udoka said. “When the shots aren’t falling and he is getting the good looks, you aren’t that worried about it, honestly. You’re not as concerned with the slump, it’s just playing the right way and he’s doing that.”