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The Dunk

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The final highlight of this memorable Celtics’ season was Jason Tatum throwing it down on LeBron James.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, it wasn’t enough. And really, two points don’t win you a game. Even if it’s a buzzer beater, two points are just two points. The Celtics fell to the Cavaliers on Sunday night in a crushing Game 7 loss in the Garden 87-79, but in the rubble of that loss, there are two points that will be forever remembered.

We’ll forget that the Celtics made just 7 of their 39 three-point attempts, their worst shooting performance from behind the arc in the playoffs in what was their biggest game of the post-season. In a week, the eye sore of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier combining for eight points on 3-of-24 shooting will be a fading memory. Like Brad Stevens said in his post game presser, “the pain is part of the path.”

But we’ll remember those two points.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Stevens called timeout after LeBron James hit a floating bank shot over Al Horford to push the Cleveland lead to 4. Out of the huddle, the Celtics ran some off ball action for Jayson Tatum to get the ball at the top of the circle. Even with the Cavs loading up in the paint, Tatum drove hard to the rim and then made this poster:

It was loud. Boston had been floundering offensively in the second half and with the game in the balance, Tatum’s dunk on LeBron whipped the Garden faithful into a frenzy. On the next offensive possession, Tatum would side step a George Hill close out and hit a three to give the Celtics their final lead of the Eastern Conference Finals and that would be the final consequential field goal the Celtics would make over a 5+ minute stretch to end Game 7.

It may be hyperbole or just a desperate attempt to reconcile a disappointing loss in the face of LeBron making his 8th straight Finals appearance and knowing that these rag tag Celtics could have been the ones to prevent that, but I’ll remember that dunk if not for the next few days, but for the next few months as the focus turns to the off-season and eventually, next year’s training camp.

Yesterday, I wrote that even though LeBron’s shadow over the Eastern Conference has kept so many teams in the dark, these playoffs have been illuminated by Boston’s rising stars, particularly Jayson Tatum. That dunk was a moment. It symbolized the Celtics’ youth movement and their eventual rise in power to overthrow The King. Even in a loss, it’s coming.

What’s past is prologue. Everybody knows the story. Six years ago, Tatum, a godson to former James teammate Larry Hughes, tweeted this out to one of his idols:

After Game 7, Tatum recognized the significance of the moment: “It’s my first year in the league. I grew up watching LeBron, asking him to follow me on Twitter, going to his camps.”

Let’s not forget James’ baptism of Tatum to start the season. His first field goal attempt came in that fateful day in Cleveland. LeBron snuffed out his dunk in a rude welcoming for the rookie:

Seven months later, Tatum returned the favor and let LeBron know it:

Both head coaches spoke glowingly of Tatum’s performance:

Tatum will have hundreds of highlights in his career. He’s had a slew of them already with many coming in these playoffs. But that dunk will no doubt echo. After the game, James said of Tatum: “I just love everything about the kid. The way he plays the game, his demeanor, where he’s come from. He’s just built for stardom.”

On the ESPN telecast, they caught LeBron James commiserating and hugging the Celtics players before heading into the locker room. His brief conversation with Horford seemed respectful as the two veterans stood tall and face-to-face, the product of a mutual admiration born out of a handful of playoff battles. James’ embrace of Tatum was different. After finding Tatum in the crowd, LeBron wrapped his arms around him. James talked longer to Tatum than any of the Celtics and seemed to impart words of wisdom on the rookie. It wasn’t just a friendly “good game” you’d say after six innings in a little league or a condescending “congratulations on a great season.” It had the air of Bird & Magic to Jordan and Jordan to Kobe. It was a moment. Just like that dunk.