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chad finn

Redemptive Game 7 rout put to rest some misconceptions about the Celtics

Jayson Tatum went 4 for 4 on 3-pointers when guarded by 76ers big man Joel Embiid.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The shriveling Sixers weren’t the only thing the Celtics put to rest with their rousing 112-88 rout Sunday in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal.

They also buried an assortment of negative narratives and perceptions — some fair, some never fair at all — about themselves. And that’s another fulfilling victory in itself.

Any discussion of redemption must begin in one place: with Jayson Tatum’s career-defining, climb-on-my-back-boys tour de force.

You may know the stats by heart now: 51 points, the most in a Game 7 ever. (Even more impressive, Tatum scored 67 points since the start of the fourth quarter in Game 6.) A game-high 13 rebounds. A team-high five assists. Tatum knocked down 17 of 28 shots, including 6 of 10 threes, and that latter stat felt more like 9 of 10.


Beyond the breathtaking numbers, Tatum played a remarkably poised and intelligent game. He did not commit a turnover in 41:40 of action. For parts of the series, he would become flummoxed when coming face to face with Joel Embiid in the lane, leading to altered and awkward shots.

Tatum’s record-breaking Game 7
Celtics reporter Gary Washburn talks about Jayson Tatum’s record-breaking performance in Game 7 vs the Sixers, and previews the upcoming Celtics-Heat series.

Sunday, he put Embiid in the blender, blowing past him at will and going 4 for 4 from three when the big man was his primary defender, including a pair of threes within about a minute of each other early in the third that put the Celtics up, 65-55, and planted the seed that this might be a runaway. It was, largely because Tatum solved the Embiid mystery.

Tatum struggled mightily at points in this series, including shooting a combined 1 of 24 — that’s 4.2 percent — from the field in the first quarters of Games 4-6. He is long proven as a superb player, having made first-team All-NBA two years running, but his struggles (particularly in the Finals against the Warriors last season) tended to overshadow his big-moment success (46 points in Game 6 on the road against the defending champion Bucks in last year’s East semis).


It got so tiring hearing from fans that called him soft or said he was, to paraphrase, dispassionate. But it was tough to push back on that when he was essentially absent from the first quarter in multiple games in this series.

Tatum is just 25, works relentlessly on his game, and there’s still room to grow (Paul Pierce didn’t become a champion until he was 30), but as the weight on his shoulders got heavier as this series went on, it began to feel like a referendum on his status among the NBA elite and his place in Celtics lore.

Let’s just say the referendum passed in a landslide. I saw Larry Bird’s entire career, and Pierce’s too, and I’m not sure I ever saw either of them dominate a game quite like this, and that’s even without considering how Tatum’s reputation was at stake.

There’s no perfect comparison for his performance, but it reminded me of various spectacular moments in Celtics lore. It was a little bit of the Bird-Dominique Wilkins shootout in Game 7 of the ‘88 Eastern Conference semifinals … and a little of Larry’s 60-point game against the Hawks in March 1985 … and a little of Pierce’s 41-point gem in Game 7 against the Cavaliers in 2008 … and, in a team sense, of the Celtics’ 36-6 run in the third quarter against Atlanta in the clinching Game 5 of the 1986 conference semis.


Whenever you’re reminding someone of the 1985-86 Celtics — the best single-season team I’ve ever seen — you’re doing something extraordinary.

(There is a common thread through those aforementioned games, by the way. Doc Rivers was involved in all of them. Isn’t that wild?)

Funny, but no one has texted or messaged me today that Tatum is soft. Hopefully that nonsense is over for good.

Tatum delivered a performance for the ages Sunday, scoring 51 in the Game 7 win over Doc Rivers (background) and the 76ers.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As for other perceptions that were proved to be either misguided or no longer existent during this series, how about this one, the notion that Tatum and Jaylen Brown don’t bring out the best in each other. I thought Game 7 was the best they have ever played in tandem, with Brown setting the tone early, scoring 25 points in total, and tormenting first-ballot Hall of Fame quitter James Harden up and down the court.

The energy, as they say, shifted when Harden whacked Brown in his unmasked face with 8 ½ minutes left in the second quarter and the Sixers up, 35-27. The Celtics tore off an 8-0 run after that, playing with a relentless pace that you knew would eventually wear down the Sixers. (The Celtics were the far better- conditioned team.)

I thought it was telling in all the right ways at the end of Game 6 when no one was happier for Tatum after his breakout 16-point fourth quarter than Brown. Some stars would be annoyed that their teammate kept shooting through a miserable slump with the season on the line. But Brown, who would have had every right to want the ball down the stretch, greeted Tatum with a grin, an elaborate handshake, and a big hug afterward. There is no doubt. Those two are in this together.


We’ll save the discussion of Joe Mazzulla’s standing after this series for another day, and just note one more change in perception for now.

It seemed at times during the season, and even in the first-round series against the Hawks, that both Al Horford and Marcus Smart had lost a step defensively. I don’t know if they were aching or pacing themselves or what, but it became clear in this series that both remain forces on the defensive end.

I’m not sure there’s another player in the league who enjoys beating a specific team the way Horford enjoys beating the Sixers, and the 36-year-old wore down and wore out Embiid. And Smart seemed to pester, agitate, and lock down every Sixer at one time or another; he was back in his Defensive Player of the Year form from a season ago.

If Horford, Smart, and Brown continue to set the tone with their defensive intensity, and Tatum can keep playing like a Celtics legend in his own time, anything isn’t just possible with this team. It might just be probable.

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.