NBA playoffs: Jayson Tatum's historic Game 7 sends Celtics to Eastern Conference finals

BOSTON — Jayson Tatum arrived to TD Garden on Sunday sporting a hot pink button-down shirt with the number "7" circled on the back, then proceeded to score more than anyone ever in a do-or-die NBA game.

The 25-year-old Boston Celtics forward scored 17 of his Game 7-record 51 points in a masterful third quarter, burying the Philadelphia 76ers under the weight of an electric home crowd. His scoring total in the 112-88 win eclipsed the mark set by Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry two weeks earlier.

You knew the night was special when legendary sportswriter Bob Ryan, whose career on the Celtics beat began shortly after Bill Russell's 11th and final championship in 1969, tells you that Tatum's achievement was the greatest Game 7 he has seen live from someone in a Celtics uniform. (Ryan will point that he was in Los Angeles when Larry Bird dropped a 39-12-10 on the New York Knicks in a second-round Game 7.)

"You never know what might happen," said Ryan. "That's why you show up."

Nobody showed up quite like Tatum. The game was tied, 55-55, in the opening minute of the second half, when he transcended. Tatum scored 10 straight points, including consecutive step-back 3-pointers over reigning MVP Joel Embiid, during a 28-3 run that suffocated the Sixers. Game over. Series over. Good night.

"It was beautiful to see," said Celtics veteran Al Horford. "I don't know if I'll go back and watch the whole game. I have to move ahead, but I may go back just to see what we did, because it was impressive."

Jayson Tatum headshot
Jayson Tatum
SF - BOS - #0
5/14/2023 v. PHI

It was Tatum's defensive effort during that same stretch that solidified this as an all-time takeover. On a single possession midway through the third quarter, Tatum defended lightning-quick guard Tyrese Maxey on the perimeter, poked the ball free to Embiid and doubled the 7-footer to force a shot-clock violation. Tatum rotated onto one-time MVP James Harden minutes later, forcing another turnover. Tatum was the fulcrum on which 13 straight empty Sixers possessions turned a typically tight Game 7 into an 83-58 celebration.

Tatum fed off frenzied fans in a way we usually only see from Curry in the Bay Area. When he peeled around a Horford screen to drill the fourth of his six 3-pointers, forcing the second of three Doc Rivers timeouts over a five-minute span, Tatum walked to center court, pointed at the logo and declared, "This is my s***."

This was performance art.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum receives applause as he steps off the court near the end of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinal series, Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum receives applause as he steps off the court near the end of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinal series, Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

"It's a movie," said Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who finished +31 in 39 minutes, second only to Tatum's +33. "It's a big movie. Being able to just sit back, each your popcorn and watch, sometimes we do get in that mode where we forget we're on the court playing with him and we've got to continue to play, because he's able to make shots at a high difficulty and get hot like he did tonight. It's a beautiful thing to watch."

With each successive bucket, Tatum impressed himself, at one point shouting, "Oh, my God," and turning each time to his family section seated front row, as if they were the conduit through which he plugged into the arena. It was only two nights earlier when Tatum started 1-for-14 from the field in a must-win Game 6.

"I can't express it enough, the genuine love I feel from the crowd," said Tatum, who added 13 rebounds, 5 assists and not a single turnover in 42 minutes of Game 7. "Whether it's pregame, during the game at the free-throw line, I've been here my whole career. I feel that they embrace me almost as one of their own, and that means a lot. I love being here. I love getting to put on this uniform. I love getting to play big games, put on big performances in front of them. They feed off emotion and energy, and it's reciprocated."

"To win in the playoffs is extremely hard," added co-star Jaylen Brown, who scored 25 points. "It takes a lot of sacrifice, intensity, emotion and hard work. We're looking forward to winning more games and continuing this process. All I can say is, all praise to the 'Most High.' We're both extremely grateful to be here."

In the locker room after Game 7, Tatum told teammates he understood how hard it was for the Sixers to get back on a plane bound for Boston after so deflating a loss on Thursday. "They had us beat," he said. "We were done." And then they weren't, because Tatum lit a fourth-quarter spark that started Sunday's inferno.

"It definitely was in my mind that I had played as bad as it could get for 43 minutes," Tatum said of his poor showing two nights earlier. "We have a saying, 'There's only up from here.' They had us on the ropes in Game 6. The end of that third, going into the fourth, the game was back and forth, the crowd was into it. They had us, and we figured out a way to win. That was a great feeling to win that and come back home."

Meanwhile, a beaming Brandy Cole waited in the hallway for her son, the rising superstar. Tatum had just wrapped her a hell of a Mother's Day gift, complete with a trip to Miami for the Eastern Conference finals.

"You got that right," she said.

Just then, Rivers passed the Tatums, half-joking, "Too much joy in this f***ing hallway."

"On to the next one," said a smiling Mike Zarren, the Celtics' vice president of basketball operations. How do you even play another game after a night that felt like a championship celebration? "A couple days' rest."

That is all Boston has before hosting the Heat for Game 1 on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Having split two meetings with Miami in the conference finals over the previous three seasons, Tatum and company know all too well about Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and the rest of a challenger that fights harder than the more talented Sixers. The Celtics are also aware their latest win over Philadelphia makes them prohibitive title favorites.

Back inside the locker room, as teammates took turns congratulating Tatum, he shoveled ice from the bucket in which he soaks his tired feet. Trainers had added extra just to cool him off. He finished a protein shake and tossed it toward a trash can in the corner. It rimmed out, the only clean look he missed all night.