The transformation to super stardom is a process, one that will have its painful and triumphant moments, sometimes in the same game.
It was one of those nights for Jayson Tatum, the Celtics third-year forward who is soaring toward a maximum contract next summer. Boston’s hopes for reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, to surpass last year’s disappointing finish, is for Tatum to take that next major step to prominence.
His game-winning jumper with 1.3 seconds left, a shot that staved off a brilliant stretch from former Celtic Marcus Morris, edged the New York Knicks, 104-102, at TD Garden Friday night.
It was Tatum’s first winning shot as an NBA player, and he said his last was at Duke, in a victory over Virginia. After further review, there was no game-winner on that mid-February night in Charlottesville. Tatum hit a clutch 3-pointer to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to 10 with less than two minutes left.
But that pales in comparison to his pull-up jumper in the face of fellow one-and-done Dukie R.J. Barrett for the victory. Tatum finished with 24 points, including two buckets in the final 1:50.
It wasn’t a picturesque performance for Tatum. There were times where he reverted to his 2018-19 form: passing up open 3-pointers, dribbling too much on and taking those low-percentage Kobe Bryant fadeaway jumpers. But Tatum was able to recover. He didn’t allow some miscues and his matchup with close buddy and mentor Morris to affect his focus in the waning moments.
Morris was determined to leave TD Garden victorious in his first game back after two seasons with the Celtics. He was disappointed the Celtics didn’t attempt to re-sign him in free agency and he was stellar in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points, including a tying 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left.
After a timeout, Tatum walked to the right corner and told Marcus Smart, who was inbounding the ball, that he’d be open. Smart lobbed him the ball and Tatum faked left, then dribbled right to create space, launching a 21-footer that swished.
It’s the type of play that can only help Tatum’s maturity as a leader and cornerstone. It was Tatum, not free-agent signee Kemba Walker, who took the final shot. It’s a position he will have to get accustomed to.
“It feels great but I don’t want to get too excited,” Tatum said. “The guys I look up to in this league, they do things like this all the time. I’ve got somebody on my team like Kemba, he’s done this many a times. Kyrie [Irving] did it. I feels good to hit one. But now I’ve got keep working at it though.”
Tatum is second on the Celtics in scoring, averaging 22 points per game. The good news is he’s hitting nearly 49 percent of his 3-point shots. And he’s hitting just 36 percent of his 2-point shots through five games, meaning he’s going to improve offensively.
“We have confidence in him and we believe in him,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “[Marcus] Smart made the right read and Tatum made a great shot.”
Tatum’s shot helped the Celtics avoid the expected letdown after they battered the Knicks on Oct. 26. But this game was more physical and competitive. The Celtics never led by more than 7 points. Each time Boston forged ahead with a couple of baskets, the Knicks would respond.
Morris, who had been in a 12-for-42 shooting slump prior to Friday, swished three 3-pointers in the final 5:06 as the Knicks stayed within one possession. Morris was also able to draw a foul on an eager Tatum while shooting a 3-pointer. The two grew close the past two years, with Morris understanding that the gifted Tatum needed guidance.
“We’ve been talking about this moment for a while, and you know I told him when I come back here, if I do, we going to go at it,” Morris said. “He’s going be a great player in this league for a while, and I’m happy to be a part of his career so far.”
And Morris’s impact wasn’t lost on Tatum.
“It was great,” Tatum said. “Everybody knows we’ve got a great relationship, like a big brother to me. I kind of wished that I hit that shot over him.”
But Tatum will settle for Barrett. The season is still young, but Tatum is showing he learned from his mistakes last season. He has improved his footwork, keeping his pivot foot steady on drives to avoid travels. He isn’t settling for the long 2-point shot as often and isn’t allowing what he perceives as a lack of foul calls affect him on subsequent possessions.
Tatum is growing up, turning into a reliable primary option, shaping himself into a max player, someone who should get used to nights like these.