Jayson Tatum isn’t 19 anymore. He’s 24 and he’s already had a lifetime of NBA playoff games for the Boston Celtics, but none are as legendary as Friday’s performance with his season on the line.
The Celtics suffered a devastating slump in Game 5, blowing a 14-point lead with 10 minutes remaining to give defending champion Milwaukee Bucks a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Not only did a stellar season erupt before their eyes, but a legitimate chance to win the championship came to a halt. Boston faced the NBA’s nightmare – a playoff game against Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.
TD Garden was silent. Celtics employees were gloomy. “We gave it away,” said Jaylen Brown, who walked out of an empty arena alone on Wednesday. Their coach, Ime Udoka, added: “We missed a golden opportunity.”
Tatum adopted a different tact. He could sense the question line at his postgame press conference seeking to admit defeat, even smiling at times, before reassuring Boston, “The streak isn’t over.”
“I could come here and pout, be sad, and I’m sure there would be a big story about how we were defeated, and I don’t believe us,” he said. “You can’t change what happened. It stinks, that’s for sure, but it’s 3-2, and that’s the first to four. There’s no point in being sad. .because it won’t do anything for the next game. Always be optimistic and believe in yourself, believe in the group, that we can win the game on Friday.”
So he did, fully realizing his all-time great potential in a 108-95 victory to force Game 7 in Boston on Sunday.
“It was our season on the line,” Tatum said. “Leave it all on the floor. That’s the mindset I have – the mindset we all have – so I wasn’t going to have any regrets. I was just trying to do what ‘it was necessary.’
Tatum’s first 3-pointer came less than three minutes into Game 6. His second gave the Celtics a 15-6 lead 66 seconds later. Boston led Friday night for almost 3:42 of the first quarter, when Antetokounmpo made it clear he wouldn’t make the Celtics’ job any easier than nearly impossible. But Tatum answered all calls.
“That’s why he’s paid a lot,” Celtics teammate Marcus Smart told reporters. “That’s it, right there, for times like this. I was telling him the whole game, ‘Just be you, man,’ and he was.”
He started 4 for 4 from 3-point range. He drove for layups past Jrue Holiday, over Brook Lopez and through every other Bucks who dared to defend him. He had 18 points at halftime, tying Antetokounmpo’s bucket for bucket. Tatum added 12 more in the third quarter, the latter two of which tickled the string on a 23-foot pullback into wide-eyed Bobby Portis and gave Boston an 82-68 advantage in the closing seconds of the third quarter. .
Tatum opened his bag, pulled out the contents, and gave Milwaukee everything he had.
“I was excited to play today,” he said. “It’s a great moment for all of us, for me and for the team, just how we would react. Losing Game 5 was going to either make us or break us, and I think we showed a lot of tenacity and of growth, coming out here and winning on the road and giving yourself a chance.”
But this was Antetokounmpo’s house, and he tried to tell his visitors that they were no longer welcome. The reigning Finals MVP had 32 points in three quarters. He had his 40 early in the fourth, when his 3-pointer cut Boston’s former 18-point lead to 85-81. It was all too reminiscent of his 3 that turned Milwaukee’s fourth quarter comeback in Game 5 and squarely mirrored his 50-point Game 6 that closed out the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 Finals, until his night almost perfect free throw. double.
Only, Tatum resisted the Antetokounmpo barrage and delivered the knockout. He scored Boston’s next 10 points, half of which he delivered with contested jumpers as the shot clock expired, to push back the lead to 95-87. Milwaukee couldn’t get off the mat. Four consecutive free throws from Tatum extended the lead to 13 in two minutes and gave him 46 points on the night. The Bucks threw in the towel and pulled their starters.
“You have to give him credit,” Antetokounmpo said. “He played amazing. He led his team to victory. He had a lot of tough shots. As a team, we were doing a good job being in front of him, getting him to shoot 3 contested, 2 contested, but he did them, and you have to respect that. He played unbelievably.”
Only Wilt Chamberlain scored more points in the post-first round elimination victory before his 25th birthday. Chamberlain scored 50 points against Bill Russell’s Celtics in Game 5 of the 1960 Eastern Conference Finals. He did not match the effort in a Game 6 loss two days later. That’s Tatum’s mission in Game 7 against the Antetokounmpo Bucks on Sunday. A shot at title and greatness awaits on the other side.
And Tatum brings the same reassuring attitude back to Boston.
“I can’t wait to be there, really,” he said some 36 hours before the whistleblowing. “Just win this game and give yourself a chance to come back, that’s all. It’s do or die, and it’s gonna be fun. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s basketball. The most big moments, the biggest stage, and when it boils down, I just go out there and have fun.”
Tatum faced LeBron James as a rookie in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. He scored 50 points against Kevin Durant in the playoffs last season and swept his Brooklyn Nets this year. And he just dueled Giannis Antetokounmpo in a road elimination match. He gave the three greatest players of their generation everything they could handle. Jayson Tatum isn’t 19 anymore. He’s an NBA superstar.
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