In the absence of his All-Star teammate, Jayson Tatum carried a bit of extra weight in helping the Boston Celtics sneak past the Washington Wizards with a 111-110 victory. He was 12-of-22 shooting to finish with 31 points along with eight rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
Most importantly, with the Celtics down a point, he spun his way past Bradley Beal and contorted his way around Rui Hachimura to put in the game-winning layup with 4.7 seconds remaining.
“You’ve been playing basketball your whole life,” Tatum said in his postgame presser when asked about his ability to finish in the lane under duress. “I think it’s just a feel for the game, just something that you can feel, use your instincts, being reactive. I’ve been playing basketball since I was three. So I’ve had a lot of practice.”
Tatum has officially positioned himself in superstar territory and has the numbers to prove it. Named an All-Star for the second consecutive season, he is one of only seven players averaging at least 25 points, seven rebounds, and four assists per game. It’s an exclusive list that includes four former MVP’s (LeBron, Durant, Harden, Antetokounmpo) and three likely future ones (Tatum, Doncic, Jokic).
He is tasked with leading these Celtics and folded into that job description is leading them to victory when the verdict is up in the air late. One of those jobs has gone a bit bumpier than expected as Boston sits sixth in the Eastern Conference at 17-17. But Tatum, several days ahead of his 23rd birthday, is exuding a level of poise that has him thriving late in games.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Tatum’s game-winner against Washington was his third go-ahead field goal in the final five seconds of a game this season. Malcolm Brogdon is the only other player to have multiple such field goals to his name on the season.
He buried the Milwaukee Bucks with a banked-in 3-pointer in Boston’s opener way back in December. Not two weeks later, he put in a wing jumper to help the Celtics escape with a road victory over the Detroit Pistons.
Of course, these totals don’t include instances outside the five-second timeframe but still exude the same brand of clutchness, like when Tatum sank two free-throws with 14.8 seconds remaining to secure the Indiana Pacers’ first loss of the season on December 29th. It doesn’t include spoiled moments like when Tatum gave Boston the lead with just 11.4 seconds left in an eventual loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in overtime.
All this is to say that Tatum has made a habit of elevating his play in all types of crucial moments. He was doing so versus Washington well before that final shot. In the final 1:30 and change, he outscored the Wizards by himself 8-4, evading traps and multiple defenders, getting to the rim at will to erase a deficit as high as five during that stretch.
“One time they ran me off the 3-point line. I had a good path to the basket,” Tatum said when asked what made him decide to attack the rim with such determination. “And then the second time, if we had an open three we were gonna take it but we just wanted to get a quick score, hopefully foul. But then we got the turnover. Then at the end, it was just reading the defense and just trying to make a play.”
I’d like to think that we as a basketball community have moved past the days where so much of a star’s value is tied to their performance in the clutch. No miniature stretch of minutes should represent an entire game’s worth of productivity. Where’s the credit when the outcome is put to bed earlier?
And yet, just because the value of singular clutchness has been diminished, that doesn’t mean its significance has been evaporated completely. Offenses tend to break down and stagnate in the final minutes of a tight game. In moments with only seconds remaining, sometimes the only option involves no more than one player against the odds.
The Celtics have been no stranger to the circumstances of these heroics, a product of an isolation-centric roster heavily reliant on its dynamic duo and the result of participating in the most games (22) that fall under the clutch qualifications — final five minutes of a game and the score within five points either way.
They’ve won just nine of those contests, a bottom-10 mark that’s far below the expectations of a championship hopeful. Without the efforts of Tatum, that total would be significantly smaller and Boston’s record worse off, and he once again showed why, giving the Celtics back-to-back wins for the first time in over a month.
“I thought tonight that Jayson’s will shone through,” Brad Stevens said. “It’s been a tough stretch for Jayson, but this matters to him and he wants to win and he made big plays.”
“JT made sure we got a basket,” Kemba Walker said after finishing with 21 points, a season-high eight assists, and five rebounds. “He just made some tough layups. But, you know, that’s what great players do.”