BOSTON – Sometimes you forget what you are looking at in Jayson Tatum, a sinewy 6-foot-8, 205-pound forward with a scorer’s touch. You forget that he’s 20, a year removed from playing in the NCAA tournament, two years from high school, when he was a math-taking student with a pair of Air Jordans — or whatever the kids are wearing these days — and a dream.
You forget, because Tatum makes it easy to. Consider: Game 5, Boston’s season on the line — nobody thought the Celtics could have gone back to Cleveland down 3-2 and then win, did they? — and who does Boston turn to? Tatum, who scored 24 points, pulled down seven rebounds and handed out four assists in a critical 96-83 Eastern Conference finals win — but can’t yet buy beer.
“I think he will be the first to tell you that he enjoys playing in these types of games,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “and was looking forward to tonight after the two in Cleveland.”
What a season for Tatum. What a draft pick for Boston. Opening night, Tatum was a starter. Five minutes into his first season, Gordon Hayward goes down, and Tatum is asked to become a star. And he responded. Tatum won’t win Rookie of the Year, but there is a legitimate debate as to which NBA freshman will become the best player. Tatum has the footwork of Paul Pierce and a chance — which even Pierce will admit — to become as prolific of a scorer.
And think about it: Tatum could have been rattled. Should have been rattled. This series has been rough. His numbers have been decent, but before Game 5, Tatum had yet to have the kind of impact he had a round earlier. Some of that’s Cleveland. The Cavs have been especially handsy with Tatum. “J.R. [Smith], Jeff Green, they are playing really hard on Tatum and making it very tough,” Stevens said. Playoff defense isn’t something you can prepare for — you have to experience it.
Did Boston worry about it? Nope — never has. Since the season opener — when Tatum was stretched 37 minutes — Stevens has shown unflinching faith in him. “He’s a very emotionally steady, smart player that was going to perform at a high level above his age,” Stevens said. At shootaround on Wednesday, Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry reviewed clips with Tatum. Usually, they break down offense and defense. Before Game 5, it was just defense. The Celtics tried to spring Tatum by tweaking their substitution pattern — often, Tatum is the first man out, 5-6 minutes in. On Wednesday, Jaylen Brown came out first, to give Tatum more time to establish a rhythm. Tatum’s strong rebounding (he had just three in two games in Cleveland) freed him to create his own offense before the Cavs could settle in on him in Game 5.
“Even though he was scoring, he didn’t try to rush [and] he didn’t press,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “He just played within the game and took his shots when they were there. He played like a veteran tonight.”
Three wins down, one to go, and Boston’s best offensive option has found a rhythm. Tatum admits: The physicality of the playoffs has taken some adjusting.
“It’s like night and day,” Tatum said. “Guys are going to be physical, especially with me being the young guy. That tends to happen a lot. It’s just guys trying to be stronger and bigger than me, so they’re just trying to be more physical. I know it’s coming. It’s been happening all playoffs. So I’ve just got to fight through it [and] keep my composure.”
He has — though it hasn’t always been easy. Stevens is constantly in the ears of Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier — the Celtics’ young trio experiencing substantial postseason minutes for the first time — to maintain their composure. “[Stevens] talks to them about intensity, making sure we’re doing things with pace, that we’re playing the right way,” Al Horford said. And Horford? “Honestly, with Jayson, all I talk to him about is defense. I feel like he’s doing a good job on that end.”
Late Wednesday night, Tatum headed toward the parking lot, his father, Justin, wearing a green Tatum jersey and a Celtics hat alongside him. Tatum’s play propelled the Celtics to a win in Game 5 — and they will need a similar effort to close Cleveland out in Game 6. It’s the Eastern Conference’s impossible task: eliminating LeBron James. Lue admitted James looked tired Wednesday, with James adding, “I had my moments.” But James hasn’t been sent home early since 2010, and the best player of this generation won’t go quietly.
“I look forward to seeing us respond Friday night,” James said.
Tatum isn’t James’ peer, but on Friday he will have to play like one. Boston has been abysmal on the road this postseason, and it will need Tatum’s scoring to stay out of the kind of first-quarter holes that have plagued it. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie, of a 20-year-old, of a player who should be filling a role not offensively leading a team. Tatum, though, may be built for it.
“I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games,” Tatum said. “I think that’s when I have the most fun, when things are on the line. A lot of guys stepped up tonight. I can’t say it enough: We’re one win away from going to the Finals, especially after everything we’ve been through.”
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