LOS ANGELES — Don’t let the whisper-quiet voice or laidback personality deceive you; Jayson Tatum is a fierce competitor, and he was keenly aware that the pregame story line around Wednesday’s Celtics-Clippers game centered on the Paul George-Kawhi Leonard pair, playing together for the first time as Los Angeles teammates.
The Clippers were favored by 9 points. George and Leonard, both top-10 players in the NBA, were supposed to combine to crush the Celtics, who have relied more on teamwork than star power this season.
But at the end of a thrilling night at Staples Center — where there was a large throng of Celtics fans in attendance (including one wearing a “Bird-McHale ’86” T-shirt) — Tatum walked off having been the best player on the floor.
Tatum scored a game-high 30 points in the Celtics’ 107-104 overtime loss and gave the audience perhaps his signature NBA moment — a step-back fake on a 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds left that had George flying back on his rear end and sent the game into overtime.
Tatum may have scored more if that 3-pointer hadn’t been his only shot of the fourth quarter after he dropped 14 points on the Clippers in the third. But it was evident that, for the night, he outplayed George and Leonard. A third-year player seeking respect and adulation after a difficult sophomore season, Tatum made it apparent he wants to be considered among the league’s elite young players.
He said he was motivated by the challenge of playing against George, a player he considered a role model, and Leonard on a national television stage, especially considering the Celtics received little attention in the buildup.
“I’ve always looked up to Kawhi and PG — especially PG, he’s always been one of my favorite players,” Tatum said. “It’s an opportunity you look forward to, especially with the bright lights, big stage.
“You don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them you belong out here and earn their respect. I love to compete against those guys.”
George freely admitted he was faked by Tatum’s step-back move, and he was annoyed with himself, considering that he is regarded as a top-10 defender. And he offered nothing but kudos to Tatum, eight years his junior, who took the reins from Kemba Walker as the Celtics’ go-to player, calling for the ball in key stretches.
“I was devastated to give up that three; it was a tough pill to swallow,” George said. “It wasn’t the first time I was on a Tatum highlight; it won’t be the last, I’m sure. That’s part of the game.
“He’s special, man. He’s a special talent. It says a lot about him when he has to go up against myself, Pat [Beverley], Kawhi, Moe [Harkless], and still pull his team together without Gordon [Hayward] in the lineup and still score 30.
“It says a lot about his talent, his skill. But he’s good. There’s a reason the Celtics are off to the hot start they are.”
Since a 1-for-18 shooting performance in the Nov. 11 win over the Mavericks, Tatum is averaging 23.4 points per game and shooting nearly 45 percent from the field. He is going to need many more nights like Wednesday to be considered among the elite small forward class, but he definitely took a step forward.
“It was his game,” Jaylen Brown said. “He was making the right plays and we tried to play through him. There’s days like that, we needed somebody to lead us. Kemba is usually the guy. Kemba had a tough shooting night as well as I did. Jayson found his rhythm, found his sweet spots, and he carried us, to be honest with you.”
Tatum has focused on becoming a more efficient long-range shooter instead of settling for 2-pointers (6.6 3-point attempts per game compared with 3.9 last season), and he also has become a better rebounder (7.4 compared with 6.0).
“He did a good job; he’s being guarded by Leonard, George, and Beverley almost all night,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He just kept coming at them. It was great.”
Tatum’s development is going to be a process. With the departures of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Marcus Morris, he must assume more responsibility, not only in scoring but with rebounding and defense.
Leonard and George are top-10 players because they are elite scorers and defenders. They are premier two-way players in a league that values defense more than it did in the past generation. Tatum has the potential to be an elite scorer, and he’s proven to be clutch over the past few weeks, also canning the game-winning jumper to beat the Knicks Nov. 1.
Tatum walked off the floor after sharing a hug with George knowing he had outplayed a couple of his idols. He won’t acknowledge that. He knows there should be many more such nights and monumental shots to catapult him into the superstar category.
But on this night, he was the most impressive player on the floor, a strong hint that greatness is ahead.
“Besides KD [Kevin Durant], those are the two best small forwards in the league,” Tatum said of Leonard and George. “I look up to a lot of guys, especially those at my position. Those are two great examples of what I’m trying to get to.”