PHILADELPHIA — Before the easy excuse for the Philadelphia 76ers’ current predicament — that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons lack the experience to handle the moment — gains too much traction, keep in mind that the youngest player to step foot on the floor Saturday at Wells Fargo Center plays for the Boston Celtics. Keep in mind that Jayson Tatum is a recently turned 20-year-old rookie — the kind who fits Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell’s preferred definition — and has honey badger-grade fearlessness.
Al Horford put the Celtics on the precipice of sweeping the upstart 76ers with his rock-solid defense and game-winning layup in a 101-98 overtime victory, but Tatum led all scorers with 24 points and gave the Celtics enough of a pulse in the extra frame to set up Horford’s heroics. Tatum also had the gall to attempt what would’ve been a grimace-inducing dunk on Embiid late in regulation. Fortunately for Embiid — and Twitter, which surely would’ve imploded upon completion — Tatum missed but still had the nerve to tell the trash-talkingest of trolls, “You got lucky. You got lucky.”
The Celtics are lucky that the player Danny Ainge wanted all along with his first pick last June was available at No. 3, after the 76ers surrendered a valuable asset to trade up and swoop Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick. Fultz has had a disastrous rookie season, undone by physical and mental ailments that derailed him so badly that he hasn’t seen any time in this series. Tatum, on the other hand, continues to exceed expectations for a franchise that has made “stop sleeping on us” the theme of a season in which it lost All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to injury.
“I always envisioned myself in these type of moments,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports as he walked on some of the confetti that mistakenly fell from the rafters at the end of regulation. “I knew that I could make something happen. But it means you’ve got to go out there and do it. You’ve got to earn that trust.”
Tatum will probably finish third in Rookie of the Year voting, but the likely winner, Simmons, has had the most untimely of meltdowns. After scoring just one point in Game 2, Simmons bounced back statistically with 16 points, eight assists and eight rebounds but made three costly errors that will haunt him if the 76ers are unable to pull off a miraculous comeback in this series.
Simmons missed a wide-open dunk with the game tied at 81, inexplicably attempted — and missed — a putback jump hook with the 76ers up one with 17.2 seconds remaining in overtime, and then threw a bad pass that Horford stole, negating a chance to take a potential game-winning shot. These are moments from which Simmons will learn and improve. The Celtics have harassed Simmons with physicality, taking away the driving lanes he loves to exploit. And their quickness and athleticism have made it difficult for Simmons to dump off passes to shooters for open looks.
While Simmons has been rattled, Tatum has been anything but. Tatum is now the only player in NBA history to score at least 20 points in five consecutive playoff games at age 20 or younger. He had the most NBA-ready offensive skill set entering the draft but was supposed to be the apprentice in his first season, supposed to settle for the scraps from the more established veterans on the roster. But some ill-fated circumstances thrust Tatum into a situation in which he appears to be ready, whether the Celtics knew it, prepared for it, or not. “He’s always poised,” Celtics point guard Terry Rozier told Yahoo Sports. “He don’t seem like no 20-year-old kid. Like he’s been here before. His confidence is so high and we let him rock out and he gets the job done.”
Rocking a St. Louis Cardinals cap and a gray No. 0 Celtics jersey, Tatum’s father, Justin, looked down proudly from the stands after watching another performance from a kid who has never been intimidated by the moment. Justin Tatum feels like a broken record describing how Jayson always played up in AAU, trained with Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal while in high school, and has been around the game practically his whole life. Former NBA player Larry Hughes, who shared a backcourt with Justin Tatum in high school, is Jayson’s godfather and introduced him to his favorite players at a young age. Before high school, Tatum had already met Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, playing the latter in a game of one-on-one during Cleveland’s first run to the NBA Finals in 2007.
“He knows from me, my thing is, they’re just men. You know how to play. Find a way to enjoy the game and … just don’t ever be afraid,” Justin Tatum told Yahoo Sports. “He carried that through his whole career and it’s going to keep enhancing as he gets older and better. Right now, I just love to see him be confident. This doesn’t intimidate him or frighten him.”
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the 76ers’ current 3-0 hole is that Tatum has helped put them there when he could’ve been theirs. Sixers legend Julius Erving surely didn’t help matters when he suggested this week, “Tatum probably should’ve been the first pick in the draft,” a comment that understandably irked Fultz and created an interesting subplot for this series. Although 76ers coach Brett Brown is adamant that he saw Simmons as a point guard, the assumption that he was more of a small forward had to influence the decision to pass on Tatum for another ball-handler in Fultz. And since neither Fultz nor Simmons has a reliable jump shot, the 76ers will have an intriguing dilemma going forward.
“Right now, it’s not really about all that. You know, Philly dropped the ball on that, but we’re happy where we’re at,” Justin Tatum told Yahoo Sports. “He’s definitely passed Philly. He just wanted to be drafted and he wanted to be the No. 1 pick. So that kind of deterred him a little bit, but the thing is, he landed in an unbelievable spot with the coaching, the tradition, in Boston. I’m so happy, because I’d rather he be taught and learning under the Kyries and the Al Horfords, instead of having a lot of pressure he might not be able to handle or could complicate things. I think being in this situation definitely is better than probably being in Philly.”
Tatum got over the awe of being in the NBA after facing some of his favorite players — James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — in the first month, a period that showed him how much he belonged. As Stevens has given him more power, Tatum has proven himself worthy of more and more responsibility. The pressure will only increase, but Tatum remains calm, measured.
A premature confetti drop after 76ers reserve Marco Belinelli forced overtime with a fadeaway was almost poetic, considering the rush to crown Philadelphia after its first-round series win against Miami. The 76ers needed to take some lumps, which the Celtics are providing. Horford is serving as the savvy, skilled foil to Embiid’s power and strength. The Marcuses — Morris and Smart — are annoying Simmons to no end. And the one that got away taunts them with his play and his words: “You got lucky.” As he walked out of an arena in which he could’ve starred, Tatum wouldn’t even allow himself to contemplate what could’ve been.
“That’s a tough question because it’s so late in the season. Maybe the first game we played, first time we played them early in the season, I probably thought, ‘I could’ve been here.’ But not anymore. Now, this is the playoffs. So it’s all about winning.”
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