CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Perhaps the most impressive play by Jayson Tatum on Wednesday at Spectrum Center was not one of his 16 baskets. It was sensing teammate Jaylen Brown was feeling it offensively, after a rough first half, and making an emphasis to feed him the ball.
Tatum is making winning plays, in addition to splashing 3-pointers, attacking the rim for layups, or stepping back for midrange jumpers. He’s turning into a complete player in front of Boston’s eyes, and his 44-point performance in the Celtics’ win was typical at this point in a stellar stretch.
The Celtics were able to best the free-falling Charlotte Hornets 115-101, their 14th win in 16 games, and Tatum has been the central figure of this run, playing the best basketball of his career.
Tatum’s point barrage – 98 in the past two games – doesn’t appear selfish. Tatum isn’t hogging the ball. He isn’t ignoring his teammates. He isn’t settling for 3-pointers with Brown streaking open over the middle or Robert Williams open for a lob in the post.
He’s scoring the right way. Forty-four points on 24 shots. Three assists. Two Turnovers. A plus-18.
When the Celtics need Tatum to be his best to make a serious run toward a favorable playoff seed, he’s delivered.
Since the All-Star Break, Tatum is averaging 34.5 points on 56.4 percent shooting and 40.8 percent from the 3-point line. He is leaving no doubts he’s an All-NBA player, after being left off the team last season cost him a $30 million bonus.
“Yeah, and I think that’s what’s helped turn our season around,” Tatum said. “Defense and us playing the right way 95 percent of the time. For a majority of the game, playing the right way, the game rewards that.”
It’s also a luxury to have a prolific scorer who can combust at any time. Tatum scored 28 of his 44 points in the second half on just 12 shots. He dazzled the pro-Celtics crowd with an array of 3-pointers, including a difficult contested side-pocket three followed by a pull-up right elbow jumper for a 96-78 lead with 10:06 left.
The Celtics spent the evening building leads on the flawed Hornets but then allowing them to stay close. Those two threes were the final punishing blow. The Celtics are done blowing big fourth-quarter leads. They matched the Hornets basket-for-basket down the stretch and closed the game with the only suspense being whether Tatum would get to 50.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka allowed Tatum to stay in the game with less than three minutes left and a 21-point lead, but instead of chasing the half-century mark, he passed the ball to get other teammates some late buckets. The next-highest scorer was Jaylen Brown, who scored 15 points on 16 shots. fOUR other Celtics scored in double figures. Each had their chances to shine. It was not entirely the Tatum show.
“We talk about relying on our defense as a team,” Udoka said. “But to always have a guy you can go to and put it in his hands and let him figure it out. Not only the scoring aspect. It’s the attention he draws and the wide-open shots he gets for everybody else.
“Obviously, he’s been on a crazy tear right now. He’s getting to the spots he wants and getting the shots he wants. That’s a huge luxury to have a guy like that but everybody is feeding off of him as well.”
The Celtics have marched through this difficult part of their schedule and left rubble behind them. Since that stunning loss to Indiana Pacers, the Celtics have defeated the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets, and now the Hornets.
Charlotte was supposed to be a stern challenge but the Celtics led most of the way and responded quickly with an Al Horford 3-pointer when the Hornets took a 67-64 lead and then ended the quarter on a 23-14 run.
After getting a technical foul midway through the third period and having to be controlled by assistant coaches from being ejected, Tatum took some time to cool off on the exercise bike and then proceeded to later score 17 points in a 5:01 stretch.
Perhaps we had been exposed to a taste of Angry Tatum. But it was just time to stop messing around with an inferior opponent and get out of North Carolina with another win.
“Angry Tatum?” he said laughing. “I think it was kind of that time. It was like all right, let’s get this done. And I think we had the same mindset, not to play around with the game and go figure it out. When you win a game like that, especially on the road. That’s basketball.”
The Celtics turnaround has been stunning and enjoyable for the faithful. And Tatum has been the nucleus of this renaissance because he’s become more efficient, turning himself not only into a premium scorer but a playmaker, rebounder, and all-around ballplayer. That’s what you envision from your lottery picks, that’s what you desire from your franchise player.
Tatum is not only cementing himself as a superstar. He’s also making his teammates better by becoming more trusting and versatile.