The burden of superstardom is real. When it comes to falling short of expectations, context is hardly ever relevant. If a team isn’t performing at the level it should, all eyes point to the leading man in search of answers he’s supposed to have at the ready.
Jayson Tatum might not be a clear-cut superstar just yet, but he is a star and he is Boston’s best player. So as the Celtics have continued to search for their groove with a record that floated around .500, there would inevitably come a point when he’d have to look around, shrug his shoulders, and put the team on his back more than he already has with career-highs in both scoring and assists on the season.
With the playoffs looming over the horizon and the unfortunate idea of participating in the play-in tournament becoming more of a reality, no time seemed more appropriate for Tatum than the present.
It started last Friday night against Minnesota, where Tatum put forth the best individual performance of his career by scoring a career-high 53 points on 16-of-25 shooting in an overtime victory.
Having to cross the half century mark just to eke out an overtime win in which you gave up 136 points to a west-worse Timberwolves team doesn’t exactly make for a feel-good victory, but it’s what the moment required.
Tatum was on FIRE with a career-high 53 PTS in the Celtics' win pic.twitter.com/5jgaGJt2bC— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 10, 2021
Minnesota built a lead as high as 17 in the third. Tatum made sure to shrink that number down to just five with a 17-point quarter. The dunk that gave him 50 also gave the Celtics a lead in the extra session that they wouldn’t relinquish. Three free throws soon after doubled a three point lead to six.
When the dust settled, he had amassed the third-highest points total in a single game by any Celtic ever and became the youngest to score 50+ in green. More importantly, Boston earned a win they couldn’t afford to lose.
“Scoring 50 is a big thing in this league and especially at this age. It’ll be a night I will always remember,” Tatum said after the game. “First 50-point game and we got the win on top of that. Big win. Every win right now is big.”
There really wasn’t much shame in falling down big to the Nuggets two days later. After acquiring Aaron Gordon at the deadline, Denver had plowed its way to eight consecutive victories. Facing a deficit as high as 13 late in the third within the unfriendly high altitude of the Mile High, Boston just seemed like the next in line.
However, A 31-3 run and a 31-8 fourth quarter edge in favor of the Celtics turned a 13-point deficit into an 18-point victory with Tatum sparking the comeback in the ways he knows best, scoring 14 in the fourth quarter alone after putting up 14 through the first three quarters. No other Celtic scored more than four in the final frame.
Boston’s defense was the true hero of this comeback, limiting a potent Denver offense to just 3-of-23 shooting in the fourth quarter. But a deficit can only be sliced into when both sides of the ball are humming at elite levels. The defensive end was a true team effort. Tatum seized control of the offense and made sure the Celtics never looked back.
“It’s certainly going in the right direction,” Tatum said after Boston’s third straight victory and fifth in its last six games. “We still got some things to improve on, but hopefully we can just continue to build off this.
The Celtics outscored the Nuggets 31-8 in the fourth quarter to end Denver's eight-game winning streak pic.twitter.com/i6hrKz8Gst— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 11, 2021
While the Celtics and Blazers engaged in an offensive explosion through the first half by combining for 17 triples and 117 points, Tatum wasn’t one to join in on the fun. He took just five shots en route to seven points. Portland held a three-point lead at halftime.
That the Celtics could hang with an offense as explosive as Portland’s without getting much from their best player spoke volumes to their all-around effort. But Tatum would have to bring more to help his team separate, which didn’t take long for him to realize.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Tatum scoring 17 points in the third helped the Celtics take a five-point lead heading into the final frame. Though quiet in the fourth, he scored five points in the final minute, first converting two free throws to give Boston the lead before patiently lulling CJ McCollum to sleep and knocking down the step-back 3-pointer to put Boston up four with 8.5 seconds remaining.
“He’s really in a rhythm of knowing what he wants to do with a possession and where those opportunities are going to be coming from,” Brad Stevens said after the game.
Being a superstar means putting up numbers. Tatum has done exactly that across the board over these last three games to help Boston climb to No. 5 in the Eastern Conference just one game behind the fourth-seeded Hawks, averaging 37.7 points — on a shooting line of .538/.500/.912 with over 11 free-throw attempts per game — along with 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists a night.
But part of the job also requires bringing certain variables whose necessity can only be discovered in the moment.
Against Minnesota, that was a gaudy scoring total to offset giving up 38 points to one of the worst first-quarter scoring teams in the league. Tatum had to carry the load in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback in Denver. His scoring was needed to help Boston break away from Portland and his penchant for clutch moments to put them away.
“The way that he’s been playing these last couple of games, he’s just proving himself,” Marcus Smart said of Tatum’s recent play. “We’re gonna need that from him. He knows it. And he just continues to come out there and do that for us.”