Jaylen Brown wasn’t available for Boston’s play-in matchup against Washington after undergoing wrist surgery a week ago. Marcus Smart came up limping after twisting his ankle. Robert Williams III eventually exited the game early in the third quarter after re-aggravating his turf toe.
The Celtics were the higher seed and thus got the advantage of playing in front of their home fans, but a win against a red-hot Wizards team that had won 15 of its last 20 to climb up to the eighth seed with a dynamic backcourt playing some of its best basketball wasn’t guaranteed. It certainly didn’t look that way when Washington built an eight-point lead late in the second.
But then there was Jayson Tatum, pouring in 23 of his 50 points in the third quarter to build Boston a double-digit lead it wouldn’t relinquish en route to a 118-100 victory. His half-century scoring total came along with eight rebounds, four assists, and two blocks in 40 minutes of action to officially lock the Celtics into a playoff spot.
“I wanted to get to the playoffs,” Tatum said after the game. “And I ain’t wanna lose to Brad (Beal) and hear about it for the rest of my career either.”
Tatum’s greatest skill is his shotmaking ability, and a Wizards defense that often included three or more guards was ideal in helping to accentuate those gifts coming from the 6’8’’ wing.
The man often criticized for his perceived inability or unwillingness to get to the free throw line was a perfect 17-of-17, equally the total makes of the entire Wizards team. Those easy points were a big reason the Celtics emerged with a win despite shooting just 39.6 percent from the field as a team, their first victory all season while shooting less than 40 percent.
“Especially in the playoffs, the easier a bucket can be, especially attacking the rim early, it opens up so much for himself but also for us as a team,” Tristan Thompson said. “For him (Tatum), he had it rolling, he’s a stud. We know what he can do, so he has to set the tone early for us.”
Superstars remain the most valuable commodity in the NBA today. It’s why acquiring the services of a player like James Harden can justifiably cost up to eight draft picks. Players of that caliber are that good with the talent to swing any game against any opponent no matter who’s out there with them.
Just look at Stephen Curry, who has spent the entire 2020-21 season defying all that has worked against him. Klay Thompson’s absence seemed irrelevant at times, as was the absence of offensive firepower the Golden State Warriors had previously grown accustomed to during their championship runs.
As long as Curry’s magnificence was present to lead the way, the Warriors had a chance. They were 37-26 with Steph in the lineup this season, a .587 win percentage that would rank eighth if stretched over the entire season, and had a top-10 offense with him on the court. Such is the value the league’s leading scorer and pantheon shooter can provide under any set of circumstances.
Tatum isn’t on the level of the two-time MVP, but he used the play-in tournament to prove that he is equally capable of powering the Celtics when the situation calls for it.
It’s the latest in a long line of moments that have validated his superstardom this season, from once again averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists to outings of 50 and even 60 to bring Boston victories it probably didn’t deserve.
Will that be enough to win four games against a powerful Brooklyn Nets team that took all three regular season games against Boston without its Big Three intact? Probably not. But it’s an indicator that Tatum is sure to do all he can to have the Celtics go down swinging and provide some memorable moments along the way.