Jayson Tatum offers reminder that Celtics' future is brighter than it sometimes seems

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Forsberg: Tatum's heroics serve as important reminder for Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Look, the next couple weeks might not be pretty. The Boston Celtics are about to launch into a first-round playoff series with an absurdly talented Brooklyn Nets team that enters the postseason with the best odds to secure the 2021 NBA title.

In a season that started with grand expectations, bowing to Kyrie Irving and the super team he constructed while leaving Boston at the altar isn’t the ending any Celtics fan desired. The inconsistencies of this Boston team amid perpetual injury and illness woes have made it a rather maddening season overall.

But then there are nights like Tuesday that offer a much-needed reminder that there are blue skies ahead of these clouds. And 23-year-old Jayson Tatum might just be the biggest ray of sunshine.

Tatum makes statement with dominant performance vs. Wizards

Tatum took over the play-in stage while erupting for 50 points on 14-of-32 shooting in Boston’s 118-100 triumph over the Washington Wizards. Even with St. Louis buddy Bradley Beal and triple-double maven Russell Westbrook on the other side of the court, Tatum quickly asserted himself as the best player on the floor (and teammate Kemba Walker might have been the second-best).

Tatum relentlessly attacked the basket and was rewarded with 17 free throws. He had five 3-pointers, including a few over the outstretched arm of an overmatched Beal. After the game, Wizards coach Scott Brooks confirmed what Celtics fans spent the night chanting when he opined, “[Tatum is] going to be an MVP in this league soon.”

Walker later seconded that declaration.

"Jayson was special, man. He was unbelievable,” said Walker. "It ain’t new to me. ... So I’m here for the ride. It’s fun. It’s always exciting to see him go off the way he goes off. So we’re going to need that throughout this whole run."

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

It’s been an undeniably maddening Celtics season with losses so bad that it’s a wonder any Celtics fan has hair left after spending the past six months ripping it out. But sometimes you can’t see the forest from the trees.

Nights like Tuesday are a good reminder that, for all the warts of this year’s team, the future isn’t as murky as it sometimes feels. In Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have two 24-and-under All-Stars at the most desirable positions in the league. The two have only scratched the surface of their potential, particularly in making each other better.

While Brown sat restless behind the Boston coaching staff, a big white cast over his surgically repaired wrist, Tatum dominated Tuesday’s game. Even when his shots didn’t fall early, the Celtics had to feel good about his aggressiveness and his desire to impact play.

Then Tatum absolutely took over the third quarter, helping Boston create room in what had been a one-possession game at halftime. Tatum played with a swagger that suggested he truly viewed himself as the best player on the court.

For Tatum, this was his third 50-plus point game in 39 days. No other Celtics player had scored 50-plus twice in a single season. Tatum put up 53 points against Minnesota on April 9, tied Larry Bird’s single-game record with 60 points against the Spurs on April 30, and produced only the sixth 50-point game in Boston’s postseason history with his big night against the Wizards (even if the NBA suggests that play-in stats won’t count towards any postseason stats).

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Over a 19-game span starting with that Timberwolves outburst, Tatum is averaging 30.9 points per game. He wasn’t able to carry the Celtics at the finish line of the regular season and hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament slipped away. It might have cost him $32 million on his rookie extension if he doesn’t land on an All-NBA team.

To be sure, Tatum did not have a perfect year. He’s still learning how to create for teammates and maximize the attention he draws. He still eases into games too often and needs to play with a more consistent intensity.

But nights like Tuesday reaffirm his superstar status in this league. Even after a bout with COVID and well-documented after-effects, Tatum improved his stat line from last year’s All-NBA season. Time missed by other players could open an avenue for him to steal one of the final forward spots. If Boston hadn’t slipped to seventh in the Eastern Conference, he might have been more of a slam dunk for that All-NBA berth.

That Tatum raised his play at the start of Boston’s postseason adventure is a particularly encouraging sign. He’s always gone up a level on the playoff stage, even as a 19-year-old trying to will the Celtics to the NBA Finals when their veteran superstars were sidelined.

Bucket-by-Bucket: Tatum puts up 50 pts in play-in game win vs Wizards

1621400349

No amount of Tatum heroics might be enough to propel the Celtics against the Nets. Brown’s absence looms large as Brooklyn prepares to trot out a fully healthy Big Three of Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden that rarely played together even as the Nets cruised for much of the year.

Stripped of the expectations that often weighed them down this season, maybe the Celtics can take on the familiar role of spunky underdog and be a throwback to some of the more fun teams of the Brad Stevens era.

Alas, health woes will make that tough. Robert Williams landed awkwardly on Tatum’s foot late in the first half and was later ruled out due to his lingering turf toe issues. Marcus Smart, who was already battling a right calf bruise, twisted his ankle.

Yes, the Celtics have a sizable task ahead. Which is why it’s prudent to keep the bigger picture in mind when watching this series. Can Tatum continue to produce big games against elite competition? How does Walker and his knee hold up over the grind of a playoff series? How does Evan Fournier fare against top competition and does that give the Celtics confidence to splurge to keep him around next season?

Maybe Tatum will have another magical night against Brooklyn. Maybe the Celtics can make the Nets sweat a little bit. If nothing else, this series will tell us just how close the Celtics are to one of the East’s truly elite.

Danny Ainge and Co. have a bunch of work to do this summer. Much of this roster could be overhauled. But the presence of Tatum and Brown (and Stevens, too) ensures that Boston will at least be in the mix. Better health, better depth, and a more forgiving schedule could cure some of what ailed this team this season.

This isn’t to absolve the Celtics of their woes this season. They should have been better this year. They’ve put themselves in this tough spot with their period of uninspired play.

But those screaming to tear it all down this offseason need to remember that the bones of this thing are still pretty solid.