On a night when the Brooklyn Nets had their best players available, it was Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics who had the final say.
Tatum, who turned 24 four days ago, poured on a season-high 54 points in a 126-120 win over the Nets, nearly outscoring the dynamic though oftentimes absent duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who combined for 56 points in the loss. The significance of Tatum’s feat goes beyond its value towards the win, as this was the former Duke Blue Devil’s fourth 50-point performance as a Celtic, which ties him with Larry Bird for the most 50-point games in Celtics history.
Efficiency was not Tatum’s strong suit, especially earlier this season as he struggled with his shot, and while the shots weren’t exactly falling, it was Boston as a team that was taking a free-fall in the Eastern Conference standings. This free-fall also came considering teams such as the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers racked up wins while exceeding expectations and beating their own developmental timelines, respectively.
Daunting as it seemed early on, the Celtics turned the corner once the calendar flipped to 2022.
After starting the 2021-2022 season hovering within .500, Boston proceeded to win 16 of their last 19 games, highlighted by a nine-game winning streak that included solid wins over the Nets, the Miami Heat, and the Philadelphia 76ers.
During that win-streak, Tatum had averages of 25.0 points (on 48.2 percent field goal shooting), 8.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.3 steals, numbers that also came on the heels of 38-point performances against the Atlanta Hawks and the New Orleans Pelicans. It also helped that the Celtics had a full lineup, which allowed the 2020 All-NBA Third Team Selection not to force himself into doing everything and instead focus on what he does best: score the basketball.
As the Celtics continue to climb up the standings, it certainly helps that Tatum is rounding up to MVP form. Five seasons of being at least option 1-A has helped acclimate him to stingier defenses, remain flexible amidst the changes in personnel (and a head coach), and provided a number of opportunities to take over games. Thus, it’s no surprise that the 2020 Olympic gold medallist already has more than a handful of virtuoso performances even before turning 25.
How Tatum does it is also a sign of his continued maturity. The Missouri native clearly molded his game after Kobe Bryant, the late Laker legend he grew up idolizing, but he has also drawn comparisons to Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and Paul Pierce. Tatum’s game has never been about speed or brute force, as it has been predicated on finesse and creating space with patience. Opposing teams have come up with schemes and traps to throw the three-time All-Star off his game, but to no avail.
As of this writing, Boston has one of the toughest schedules left, complicating what has so far been a climb through the East standings. However, their toughest opponents over the next 10 games will be from the Western Conference, since they will face the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, and the Utah Jazz all in the span of one week.
Working in their favor as they tread through this daunting stretch (at least on paper) is the fact that Jaylen Brown also returned against Brooklyn after a one-game absence from a right ankle sprain. Brown finished the game with 21 points, four rebounds, five assists, and three steals in 34 minutes and looked like his injury wasn’t bothering him. Him being on the court helps keep the defense on its toes and allows the Celtics as a whole to exploit mismatches. Moreover, having Al Horford and Robert Williams III in the frontcourt certainly helps spread the floor and provide excellent rim protection that has led to the Celtics having one of the top defenses in the league.
Without a doubt, the Boston Celtics are Jayson Tatum’s team and his recent play further shows that he is seizing the opportunity. 50-point nights won’t be on the daily, but Tatum’s efforts should mean good things will come the Celtics’ way as the postseason rolls in.