Jayson Tatum entered the 2020-21 season riding high. Less than several months prior, he had wrapped up a breakout season in which his endless potential materialized into his first All-Star appearance and a spot on the All-NBA Third Team. He officially became “the guy” for Boston as their leading scorer with career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists.
When a player as talented as Tatum enters stardom, the logical next challenge is seeing if he could enter the rarified air of superstardom. Gordon Hayward was gone. Kemba Walker would miss time and take more of a backseat to ensure a clean bill of health. The opportunity for Tatum was there.
Boston’s record and playoff outcome might not have aided the discussion, but a silver lining in the disappointment of this season’s results is the validation Tatum earned for the next step he successfully took.
“Jayson went to another level. Again,” Brad Stevens said. “I don’t know how many more levels you can go to.”
It was an impressive shot with Giannis Antetokounmpo draped all over him, one that would set a foundation of clutch moments Tatum built on numerous times throughout the season.
He un-knotted a tie ballgame in Detroit before stripping Blake Griffin on a last-second 3-point attempt. Down one against the Wizards, Tatum spun past childhood friend Bradley Beal and adjusted in the air for an acrobatic layup that helped Boston escape with a win.
There was also the game-tying layup he put in against New Orleans to send the game into overtime and the side-step 3-pointer to seal the win in Portland.
Superstars are expected to come through when their team needs their heroics most. In the final 10 seconds of a game and the score within two points or less, no player over the course of the regular season scored more points than Tatum’s 14.
That’s what great players do,” Kemba Walker said after Tatum’s game-winner against Washington.
Great players also make a significant impact long before the final seconds of a game. Sometimes that means putting their team on their back when no one else is capable of shouldering the load, as Tatum did on several occasions down the stretch to will Boston to victories it desperately needed to remain afloat.
Tatum had 53 to help the Celtics overcome a 17-point deficit at home to Minnesota in overtime. Exactly three weeks later, with Boston down as many as 32 to the Spurs, he upped the ante with 60 points, tying the franchise record set by Larry Bird in 1985. Bird was 29 when he accomplished the feat. Tatum was just 23.
Come playoff (or play-in) time, even with Boston a beaten down bunch without Jaylen Brown and both Kemba Walker and Robert Williams III hobbled and the Celtics matched up against surging if not outright better opponents, Tatum went to war.
He dropped 50 on the Wizards in the play-in to secure a playoff spot. He then went toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant in the first-round against Brooklyn, averaging 30.6 points per game, which included another incredible 50-point outburst in Game 3 to earn an unlikely win, even in the absence of two starters.
“Guarding him the whole playoffs — he’s shifty with it,” Durant said of Tatum. “He’s got long arms too, so it’s like you don’t want to give up the 3 because he can get hot and that’s how their team gets going. He’s just so good off the dribble. He gives you five or six dribbles, hesitations, then he’s so long to get to the cup he can finish over bigs. He’s a tough, tough cover.”
Over the course of the regular season, Tatum averaged 26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game, all career-highs. Only four other players in the league matched or exceeded those numbers, three MVP’s among them.
Though his free-throw attempts per game had increased for a third straight season to 5.3, Tatum took his foul-drawing exploits to a new level in the playoffs with nearly 10 a game over the five-game series, perhaps an indicator of the easy points that are to come as soon as next year.
But maybe the most impressive part of Tatum’s 2020-21 season was the context under which it all occurred.
Having missed time after contracting COVID-19 in January, Tatum was open about the struggled he had even after clearing the league’s health and safety protocols, revealing that he had begun to use an inhaler before games.
The effects of the coronavirus vary from person to person, but lingering issues for a 23-year-old athlete is certainly an eye-opening example of how unpredictable the virus is and how much more commendable Tatum’s efforts in dragging Boston as far as he did are. His exploits didn’t secure him a back-to-back spot on any of the All-NBA Teams, but this season was certainly a banner year for Tatum, even if it didn’t raise one to the rafters. Later this summer, he’ll play for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.
“I’m proud of myself,” Tatum said. “I’ve been trying to get back to full strength. Obviously, it took me some time and it’s hard to understand what it’s like to come back from something like that and get back to yourself without having it, without being an athlete. It’s a process, and I guess you can say I came a long way.”