CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jayson Tatum vividly recalls the last time he was this close to 50 points. It was Nov. 30 against the Heat, and he sank two technical free throws with 24 seconds left and then declined an opportunity to take another shot to hit the mark.
Shortly after he received a text message from former NBA standout and TV analyst Jamal Crawford, who advised him never to pass up an opportunity for 50 because those games are so rare.
They aren’t as rare for Tatum as they are for 99 percent of the league, but he heeded Crawford’s advice Monday afternoon at Spectrum Center with the Celtics up 13 points and 38 seconds left.
The Spectrum crowd has been TD Garden south all weekend, and they implored Tatum to take one final shot when the scoreboard displayed his 48 points.
Al Horford grabbed a rebound and tossed it to Tatum, who dribbled up the floor with the crowd on their feet, then jab stepped Jalen McDaniels and then faked LaMelo Ball to create space for a three. Swish.
For the fifth time in a regular season game, Tatum finished with 50 or more points. The Celtics cornerstone, who is emerging as one of the franchise’s greats before his 25th birthday, scored 51 in Boston’s 130-118 win.
Tatum converted 15 of his 23 shot attempts, 7 of his 12 3-pointers, and scored 31 points in the second half. The Celtics toyed with the Hornets all day before Charlotte rallied to cut the deficit to 2 at the 9 minute, 33 second mark of the fourth quarter.
Tatum scored 18 of the Celtics’ final 32 points for the club’s seventh consecutive win, as he continues to add accomplishments to his already impressive resume. It was the 35th time in his career he has scored 40 or more points in a game and he is third in the NBA at 31.1 points per game.
If he maintains that number, it would set a club record for single-season scoring average. Tatum admits returning to the state where he attended college offers more comfort on the road.
“I think I’ve been on record that Charlotte has always been one of my favorite places to play on the road,” Tatum said. “Just from the crowd and the atmosphere and being in North Carolina for a year, obviously you see a lot of Celtics jerseys but you see a lot of Duke jerseys as well. Coming home and feeling that support, it’s kind of like my second home.”
If Tatum doesn’t know he’s closing in on a landmark game, his teammates will usually inform him. That wasn’t necessary on Monday. He was well aware he was approaching 50 points. He had 38 after a 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 21 seconds left.
He crossed the 40-mark with four free throws in a 59-second stretch. With the Hornets still hanging around down 9 with 2 minutes left, Tatum hit a 3-pointer to get to 45. A minute later, Marcus Smart found Tatum open with a cross-court pass for a 3-pointer in front of the Charlotte bench, setting up the final possession for 51.
“Jamal Crawford texted me and said, ‘if you’re ever that close to 50, nobody is going to remember the time and score,’” Tatum said. “Because in my mind, I was like I’ve scored 50 six or seven times before [including playoffs]. So when Al got that rebound and I was dribbling up the court, that was going through my mind.”
Tatum was efficient in his scoring outburst, reaching the free throw line 14 times. Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said he was impressed with Tatum never fishing for shots or forcing the issue.
“He makes me look like a better coach, that’s the luxury,” Mazzulla said. “The two best things that stuck out to me was he did a great job fighting for execution versus different coverages [and] he did a great job fighting for a great job against different defenses. He didn’t settle.
“Another piece of that was the humility of our team to work with him to get those 51 points. I thought he did a great job sharing the basketball as well.”
Tatum also finished with nine rebounds and five assists in 40 minutes. The Celtics led for the final 42 minutes, 24 seconds but spent the afternoon staving off Charlotte rallies. Derrick White came back from a scary injury Saturday and added 19 points while Malcolm Brogdon scored 16.
Smart finished with six assists and said he continues to marvel at Tatum’s offensive prowess.
“It should tell you how great he is,” Smart said. “His consistency. His work ethic and his ability to go out there and at any given moment and get a bucket. That’s what we’re going to need from him every game. But we understand he’s not going to be perfect. He’s not going to have 50 points every game but we need him to go out there and play like he’s getting 50 every night and continue to do the things he has been to make everybody else better.”