When Jayson Tatum completed a spectacular rookie season, in which he made more than 43 percent of his 3-pointers and helped guide the undermanned Celtics to within a game of the NBA Finals, he was billed as one of the game’s next superstars.
As expectations and endorsements flooded in, he continued to show promise, but perhaps he did not ascend as quickly as some were expecting, even if those expectations were unfair for a player who is still just 21 years old.
His shooting percentages are all at career lows this year, and his play has been inconsistent. But then there are nights like Saturday, when his shots pour in, when his confidence pours out, and he looks like one of the few players in the world capable of doing just about anything.
Tatum made 16 of 22 shots, 6 of 9 3-pointers, and scored a career-high 41 points in just 30 minutes, leading the Celtics to a 140-105 throttling of the Pelicans.
In a sense, the only one who could stop Tatum from reaching the 50-point mark was Tatum himself. His performance was so dominant that it staked the Celtics to a 32-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, and that meant he would watch that entire period from the bench.
Tatum became the first Celtic to score 41 points in 30 minutes or fewer since Larry Bird did so — 43 points, 29 minutes — on March 18, 1986.
“Obviously it feels good for sure, but I never get too high or too low if I play well or if I don’t,” Tatum said. “For me, I feel like I’ve got a long way to go, and the guys I looked up to, they have nights like this more often than not. So, obviously, it feels good, but just try to do it more often, be consistent, and continue to get better.”
The Celtics snapped a season-high three-game losing streak. The fact that angst was accumulating over a three-game losing streak indicates how consistent Boston has been this year. But the team was pleased to snap out of its mild funk anyway.
Coach Brad Stevens said that his team’s focus for the game was simple: It wanted to put real pressure on the ball on defense, and it wanted to strike with crisp ball movement on offense. He was pleased with the way his squad maintained that approach even as shots were raining in, because it can be easy to abandon that pass-first mind-set when it feels like easy points are waiting.
The Celtics made 55 percent of their attempts overall, 48.3 percent of their 3-pointers, and 88.9 percent of their foul shots. They reached the 100-point mark with 4:07 left in the third quarter, and they did not stop there.
“It felt good,” Tatum said. “It felt like we played with a purpose today on both ends from the beginning of the game. Starters came up and finally did our job. I know we haven’t been playing well but it felt good to start the game off right.”
Enes Kanter continued to be a force off the bench for the Celtics. The backup center had 22 points and 19 rebounds in just 23 minutes. Like Tatum, Kanter shared a minor record with Bird on this night, joining him as only the second Boston reserve ever to reach those point and rebound totals in the same game.
“I think we watched a lot of clips and went to the basics and said we’re just going to play with more effort,” Kanter said. “We were able to play with focus, and we just went out there and had fun.”
While this was a feel-good night for the Celtics, it probably should have been this way considering the circumstances. New Orleans was playing without starters Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, and Derrick Favors, as well as key reserve Kenrich Williams. Also, the Pelicans (14-26) played in New York on Friday night while the Celtics rested.
Nevertheless, the Celtics did not let up. On the first possession of the game, Tatum coasted in for a 3-point play when he was fouled on a layup. For a player who was 17 for 49 his last three games, simple starts can offer a big boost.
Before long, Tatum was unfurling a crushing array of powerful drives to the basket, toe-tapping step-back jumpers, and spot-up 3-pointers. He made eight of his first nine shots, helping the Celtics vault to a 41-24 lead that never dipped below double digits again.
By the time he reached the 39-point mark in the third quarter, there was audible buzz whenever he touched the ball. He missed a couple 3-pointers, but then set his career high by driving to the hoop for a lefthanded layup.
“I just think he’s going to be ever-improving,” Stevens said. “He had a couple of really good finishes with both hands early in the game, but he also had the right mind-set of attack. It helps when you start off these 40-point games with a couple layups, which he got. A couple off his effort, a couple off bigs sealing for him. And then he got a couple of steals and now the basket feels a little bigger and some of those threes go down.
“But the finishing is going to be really important and we’ve talked a lot about how best to do that, but I think he’s had a great year. But I think he can get better.”