For whatever reason, many of the most iconic and formative moments of Jayson Tatum’s young NBA career have taken place at the rim. There’s the time that then-rookie Tatum dunked on LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, an instance he points to as the moment he realized, “I’m gonna be pretty good for a while.” Then there’s the incredible spinning layup he converted over Kyrie Irving in last year’s playoffs, the game-winner that gave Boston the advantage they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of that first-round sweep.
Yet perhaps the most seminal moment of Tatum’s career was a shot that he didn’t convert: the dunk he attempted over Bam Adebayo as the seconds wound down in overtime of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals. The dunk that he didn’t finish; the dunk that Adebayo blocked by the skin of his fingertips to take Game 1 of the series. The block left Boston deflated and searching for answers. That series was never close again.
Fast forward now to the seventh game of Boston’s 2022-23 campaign, and you’ll find Tatum doing everything but shying away from the opportunity to charge the rim in a game-saving scenario. With Jarrett Allen — an All-NBA level leaper who stands 6-foot-9 and owns a 7-foot-6 wingspan — guarding the rim, Tatum sprinted past his defender, received a perfect bounce pass from Marcus Smart, and attacked the basket with the sort of aggression we’ve rarely seen him possess.
The slam he threw down atop Allen’s head tied the game at 107 with just three ticks under seven seconds remaining, and sent gasps reverberating through the fieldhouse. Rumor has it that the NBA’s early MVP ladder updated in real-time, even before the ball hit the floor.
This dunk, though, only tied the game and left plenty of time for a team boasting Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, and Evan Mobley, among others, to get a potentially game-winning shot off. Naturally, the ball went Mitchell’s way. A faux screen from Garland forced Tatum to switch onto Mitchell, who dribbled thrice, gathered himself, and stepped back, looking to launch.
Tatum’s contest could not have been more textbook if he tried. He blocked Mitchell’s shot — his second highlight, MVP-type play within a matter of seconds — and sent the game to overtime.
Few players in the entire league have the dexterity nor skill to pull something like this off, and fewer can accomplish both on back-to-back possessions. Giannis Antetokounmpo, definitely; LeBron James, perhaps; Kevin Durant, sure; a healthy Kawhi Leonard, probably. With every passing possession, Jayson Tatum works his way further into that group, one that is exceptionally small for a reason.
Though it would probably be much easier for Tatum to retreat from drives with a player like Allen (or, heh, Adebayo) waiting for him beneath the rim, Tatum instead elects to take the opportunity with more regularity. Perhaps it’s done in the interest of one-upping himself, something he seems to do with every passing possession. He is continuously learning from his mistakes and reworking what hasn’t worked in the past in an effort to become a more well-rounded basketball player every time he steps on the court.
Or maybe he’s interested in further confirmation that he’s “gonna be pretty good for a while” — though it’s hard to believe that a player of his caliber and standing amongst the league’s elite could ever doubt his own ability. But let’s just say that this is the case for Tatum at 24: Just imagine what it could be at 25, 28, or 36 should he maintain that mindset in the coming years.
Of course, the Celtics eventually lost Wednesday’s game in overtime, thanks to a few too many Jaylen Brown pull-ups and one too many poor looks from Marcus Smart (if you can even call them looks). But in the process, Boston’s best player leveled up once again. Despite having something of a history of attacking the rim or making the big defensive play, to do so on consecutive trips speaks to more than just Tatum’s burgeoning skillset and confidence in that skillset. It speaks to the continuous evolution of an all-world talent, and, even more so, to the formation of an all-league leader.
It’s one thing for Tatum to recount the moment he realized he’d be pretty good for a while on a popular podcast. It’s another to continue to provide nightly evidence of it being not just a feeling, but a reality. He’s been doing so for a while now, yet something about last night’s end-of-regulation sequence felt different.
This year, something about Jayson Tatum feels different. A good kind of different. And for the league, I can’t imagine anything more terrifying.