Breakthroughs are rewarding exactly because they don’t come easily and follow failure. In a breakthrough season for Jayson Tatum as a bona fide NBA superstar, he helped the Celtics finally break on through to the other side of the Eastern Conference finals.
Tatum answered the bell in the biggest moments of a Game 7 road victory over the Miami Heat Sunday night that punched the Celtics’ ticket to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010 and punctuated the Green’s remarkable rise from a .500 team after 50 games.
The Celtic cynosure in the 100-96 triumph, Tatum logged a team-best 26 points along with 10 rebounds and 6 assists while scoring 7 vital fourth-quarter points. In the process, the gifted 24-year-old answered any outstanding questions about his place in the hierarchy of NBA stars, his ability to prosper with parquet partner Jaylen Brown, and his legitimacy as the torchbearer for the league’s most storied franchise.
“Some of those guys have been to the Eastern Conference finals four times; it’s my third time,” said Tatum. “Obviously, we know we want to win a championship, but to get over this hump in the fashion that we did it — obviously we took the toughest route possible — to win a Game 7 to go to a championship on the road is special.”
Indeed it is. It didn’t always look like Tatum and the Celtics were going to arrive at their Finals destination and a date with the Golden State Warriors, both during a topsy-turvy season and in a weird Game 7.
Participating in the franchise’s 35th Game 7, the Celtics owned their largest lead ever in one after one quarter (15 points). But it was Tatum’s shot-making in the final quarter — reminiscent of his idol whose armband he wore for inspiration, Kobe Bryant — that gave them the cushion they needed to stave off a near-epic collapse.
Coach Ime Udoka called Tatum “the head of the snake.” Tatum turned Black Mamba when it mattered most.
JT took only three fourth-quarter shots, but he made them count. He hit a patented side-step 3-pointer late in the shot clock that gave the Celtics a 93-81 lead with 5:54 to go — Boston’s lone fourth-quarter trey.
Then with 4:28 left, he drilled a dagger turnaround jumper over Jimmy Butler as the shot clock expired.
The Celtics never trailed in the ultimate game of a bipolar series. But, as is their habit, they made it harder than it needed to be in one of the wilder wire-to-wire playoff wins you’ll ever witness. The Celtics led by 13 with 3:35 remaining and then allowed 11 straight Miami points.
They dodged a would-be go-ahead 3-pointer by admirable Miami star Butler with 18.7 seconds left.
Past setbacks allowed them to weather Miami’s final hail of hoops.
“Losing my first year, and losing to these guys in the bubble [in 2020], I think going through those tough times helped us grow, helped us learn,” said Tatum.
“Once we get in that situation again, we respond differently. I think that’s what it was. We would get up a big lead — they’re a great team, well-coached — and they would come back. But we kept responding. We kept the lead and kept making winning basketball plays.”
Tatum is soft-spoken. There are times you have to strain to hear him even as his timbre is amplified by a microphone, but he has found his voice as a leader this postseason.
He was the one who declared total confidence and a panic level matching his jersey number after the Celtics went down, 3-2, in their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks and then delivered a 46-point master class.
After the biggest game of his career, he was pensive and reflective, remarking that he’s not that far removed from being the happy-go-lucky high schooler in St. Louis who could only dream of these moments.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Tatum, with his preternatural scoring skill, is still not a finished product, as a player or an adult.
His fifth season has been a seminal one, notarized by a five-day span in which he was voted All-NBA first-team and earned his first trip to the NBA Finals.
Tatum took home more honors. Fittingly, he was awarded the first Larry Bird Trophy as the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern Conference finals, after averaging 25 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists.
“Regardless of how long I’ve been in the league . . . I still feel like a kid at some times that I’m truly living out my dream,” he said.
But in a moment of afterglow candor, he admitted that doubt crept in this season about this team and about his worthiness. Doubts were plentiful on Causeway Street when the Celtics were 23-24 on Jan. 22.
“It was tough, like truly,” said Tatum. “There were definitely some tough moments throughout the season where you not doubt yourself but maybe question, ‘Can we do it?’
“You start to realize how hard it is to win. You start to question yourself; are you good enough to be that guy?
The answer is a resounding yes. He’s good enough to be That Guy. The Celtics are good enough, smiting naysayers and nonbelievers who initially weren’t sure whether the turnaround was a mirage (raises hand).
We can chuck the discussion about breaking up The Jays after their big breakthrough. The adversity and scrutiny they faced being the faces of an underperforming .500 franchise for a season and a half steeled them.
“I think all of those things helped, from saying that we need to split the group up, get rid of somebody, or me and JB can’t play together,” said Tatum. “That fueled us to figure it out and not run from it.
“We trust in each other, and we had to be better. So I think instead of separating we became closer, and I think it’s shown throughout the season.”
Tatum & Co. punched through their glass ceiling. But where Tatum tops out is still gloriously TBD. There are more nights like Sunday ahead.
“Well-deserved, all the accolades he’s getting,” said Udoka. “He’s only 24 and not even touched his ceiling, not even close to that.”