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Jayson Tatum’s historic 50-piece might have just saved the Celtics season

Facing the brink, Tatum lit a fire under the Celtics, TD Garden, and injected hope into what felt hopeless mere days before.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics - Game Three Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

God descended upon the Boston Garden on April 20, 1986. He wore white Nike shoes with trims and decals of blood-red; his jersey number was 23, and his historic 63-point performance somehow came in a loss. We don’t necessarily remember the fact that Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were seeded eighth in the Eastern Conference that season. We remember that the top-seeded Boston Celtics won their NBA record 16th franchise championship just a few months after this game was played, but not that a 23-year-old instilled a dash of fear in their title aspirations when he forced them to take two overtimes to beat him in Game 2 of their first-round series.

We remember best, of course, what Larry Bird had to say about it all. He reiterated that Jordan was the greatest player he’d ever seen and that he’d never say such a thing if he didn’t mean it. He told The Boston Globe that what everyone saw that night was “just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

We’ll remember the performance that occurred May 28, 2021, when God returned to Boston and this time wore the home team’s uniform, scored 50 points, and walked away a winner. No postgame quote can compare, and no meme — no matter how memorable — will stand the test of time quite like what the 23-year-old Jayson Tatum pulled off in Boston’s 125-119 Game 3 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Perhaps ordainments that compare him to God and Michael Jordan are somewhat hyperbolic and sacrilegious, but I ask you to be forgiving. Miracles don’t come around night after night.

Unless your name is Jayson Tatum, and unless you’re accomplishing things that few if any before you can say they matched. Think about it: prior to 2021, no Celtics player had ever logged more than one 50-point game in the same calendar year. In scoring 50 last night, Jayson Tatum recorded his fourth of the season. He did it all in less than 50 days and in the span of 22 games. Over the course of his entire career — which spanned 13 seasons and 1,061 games, including the playoffs — Larry Bird logged four.

In the win, Tatum became the third-youngest player with a 50-point playoff game in NBA history, per StatMuse. The only two who were younger are Rick Barry and, in case you hadn’t guessed, Michael Jordan. They were only younger by a matter of months, if that. Tatum’s freakish ascendance isn’t littered with flukes, blips on an otherwise blank radar, nor passing moments soon to be forgotten. These are the basketball equivalent of atom bombs.

“He’s so advanced for 23 years old,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “I’ve said the word special. I don’t say that very often, obviously. He just has a unique ability to score the ball, to slither through seams, to find angles to score, but then also he’s got the vision to make every right read. He was super tonight, but he’s been like that a lot this year. He’s special.”

Tristan Thompson reinforced Stevens’ thoughts: “I told [Tatum], ‘We’re going to go as far as you take us.’”

Tatum, meanwhile, was calm and almost too collected after the game. He’s a superstar in the making, yet he makes scoring 50 look about as simple as throwing dirty socks in a hamper. He spent most of his postgame chat with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols scanning the rapidly emptying parquet floor to make sure his son, Deuce, didn’t run off too far.

“This is his gym,” Tatum said. No, JT. TD is yours. He then retreated to the locker room, head bobbing, as smooth as the 4,789 mere mortals heading toward their cars in the Garden parking lot.

“It was just one of those nights,” Tatum said of his performance. “Trying to protect home court, trying to get a win at all costs... Sometimes, nights like these are needed.” But that’s the thing: it’s no longer appropriate to say that nights like these are run of the mill, or needed every now and again. Not when you’re offering them up as often as he has been of late, and likely will continue to do. His 50 points on Friday gave him a total of 1,006 playoff points so far. (Remember: the play-in game doesn’t even count.) Only four players in NBA history have scored 1,000 playoff points before turning 24: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Tony Parker. Surely, those names ring a bell. What Tatum is doing is the stuff of legends.

He makes it look easy, even if these epic nights certainly don’t come that way. And yet he never fails to throw the book at whatever fool may take up the errand of defending him. Brooklyn sent their version of a defensive gauntlet at Tatum, and he made them all pay by way of his interchangeable war chest of stepbacks, fadeaways, and rim-running finishes through contact. He scored 39 of his 50 when Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Nicolas Claxton, or Kyrie Irving served as his primary defender. Per Synergy, Tatum scored 31 points in isolation situations, one of the highest marks in modern league history. He drew nine fouls in the game, too, a vital uptick that he needs to see continue should he wish to maintain this dominance.

And who’s to say he can’t? The rate at which he’s currently surging is already otherworldly, so much so that there’s no telling what he will do next. Perhaps it’s propelling a Boston team that everyone counted out through two games of this series against the Nets to the upset of all upsets. It’s not so farfetched to note that last night, at the mercy of a god, Brooklyn looked more mortal than they ever have; they allowed the Celtics to shoot a blistering — by their recent standards — 50.6 percent from the field and 41 percent from three. They were overmatched by a team they’d decimated twice in this series already, and not just because of Tatum, but Tristan Thompson, Marcus Smart, and even the unsung duo of Romeo Langford and Grant Williams.

It’s not farfetched to imagine this series heading back to Brooklyn tied at two games apiece, particularly given the fact that capacity on Sunday will be expanded to around 17,000. It’s certainly not farfetched to imagine Jayson Tatum continuing this tear. Maybe it isn’t God disguised as Jayson Tatum. But the fact that performances like last night’s 50-piece can’t be called uncommon anymore might be even scarier.

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