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When Celtics needed him most, Jayson Tatum stepped up

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In what was already the third Game 7 of his young career, Jayson Tatum came up big for the Celtics to lead them past Toronto and into the Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Kemba Walker summed up Jayson Tatum’s performance just about as well as possible in his postgame interview: “He’s a superstar. He showed it tonight,” Walker said. “Anyone have any question or doubt on that? He showed it.”

That he did. In a Game 7 against arguably the toughest team that the Celtics have played in a playoff series during the Brad Stevens era, Jayson Tatum delivered with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists to lead Boston into the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a signature performance from a 22-year-old playing well above his age, and put him right next to his mentor and idol - the late, great Kobe Bryant – in the history books. Tatum became the second-youngest player to record at least 25-10-5 in a playoff game.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The sheer load that Tatum has taken on in these playoffs at such a young age is relatively unprecedented. Per Basketball-Reference, his 27.8% usage has only been matched in NBA history by a star-studded cast of twelve other players his age or younger. The exclusive club includes the league’s biggest stars of the last decade, including Derrick Rose (2010-11), LeBron James (2005-06), and Kevin Durant (2010-11).

Tatum showcased his full arsenal on both ends of the floor in Game 7 and, while the whole series was a grind against the gritty defending champions, he did everything necessary to make sure the Celtics season wouldn’t end on Friday night. And in the final minute, it wasn’t one of those patented sidesteps nor one of his silky dribble moves that ended up being his biggest play of the night. Instead, it was his offensive rebound with 34 seconds left, off the second of two misses at the line from Grant Williams, that turned out to be the game-saving play.

The rebound was not only a testament to the hard work and hustle that Tatum puts in on a nightly basis, but also summarized what this Celtics squad is all about. These guys have each other’s back and are willing to do whatever it takes to win, and I don’t think there’s much that shows it more than their star player crashing in for an offensive rebound on a free throw after playing over 50 minutes just two nights ago.

With the Celtics up just 2 with 34 seconds left, a miss and a Toronto rebound would have not only given the Raptors the chance to tie or lead the game with a score, but would also have afforded them the opportunity to take the last shot in the game by getting a 2-for-1. Instead, Tatum flew in and elevated to get his left hand on the rebound and drew the foul to give the Celtics a second chance to extend the lead heading into the final 30 seconds. It’s no surprise that Brad Stevens specifically noted Tatum’s rebound and Marcus Smart’s incredible block on Norman Powell as the two most important plays of the game.

Rebounding has been a unforeseen positive for Tatum throughout the series. He’s had double-digits on that front in the last 4 games and had no lower than 8 boards in any game in the second round. In Game 7, and especially in the first quarter with the Raptors opening up in a box-and-one on Kemba Walker, Tatum did an excellent job of actively finding defensive rebounds to try and initiate early offense off the board. Per Cleaning the Glass, 35.3% of the Celtics defensive rebounds lead to transition plays (scored 1.5 PPP on these possessions), which ranks in the 87th percentile.

In the clip below, you can see Tatum grab the defensive rebound off the Gasol miss and immediately turn up the court. The Raptors have one of the best half-court defenses in the league and getting shots off before they get properly set was crucial to the Celtics’ success. Just as he crosses the half court line, Brad Stevens is furiously motioning for Robert Williams to come and set a high screen to get the offense going early in the shot clock, and it leads to an easy pull-up three for Tatum with Marc Gasol lagging back.

The biggest leap Jayson has taken in the bubble has been with his passing, as myself and Daniel Lubofksy have written about recently here at CelticsBlog. That continued in Game 7, with some pretty dump-offs and skip passes throughout the night to set up his teammates. Arguably his best pass of the night came off another rebound where Tatum knew that Jaylen Brown would be leaking out off the rebound, and hits him with a picture-perfect outlet to set up the easy two.

Tatum has always been a great scorer, but in a do-or-die Game 7, he showed that he’s also capable of doing all the little things that make superstars superstars. Playoff series are often decided by which team has the best player on the court. Tatum proved he held the crown against Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and the Raptors, and will need to keep it up against Jimmy Butler and the Heat if the C’s are going to make it to The Finals.