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The Jayson Tatum this series had been waiting for finally showed up in Game 6

Boston’s biggest star recognized that it was his time to seize the moment when it was the biggest.

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Six Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The 1986 horror film Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives features a new and improved version of Jason Voorhees — well, depending on who you ask. If you ask his victims, they’ll... well, they probably won’t answer, due to their unfortunate demise. Jason is, after all, a mass murderer. And in Part IV, the series’ main protagonist, Tommy Jarvis, accidentally resurrects him while attempting to destroy his body. Don’t ask about the specifics of that sort of error; just know that the result of Tommy’s efforts is an undead, supernatural force.

In that Friday the 13th, Jason officially became superhuman.

And on Friday, May 13, 2022, Jayson Tatum sure looked like one himself. His superhuman performance didn’t result in a collection of victims a la Voorhees, but a seventh game in the Celtics’ second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks and a feather in his cap for outdueling the mighty Giannis in the 108-95 Game 6 win. Depending on who you ask, that’s just as significant.

To the tune of 46 points on 53 percent shooting from the field (not to mention 7-of-15 from three), Tatum blitzed the Bucks with a barrage of buckets that forced Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer to become blue in the face. (Say that 17 times fast.) It was the kind of performance in which Tatum was at once privy to the moment and its stakes and capable of seizing it to the fullest impact. It was a borderline textbook example of basketball perfection in a do-or-die scenario, the Tatum fans and teammates alike had been waiting on all series. Boy, did he pick a way in which to show up.

“Huge night by him,” Ime Udoka said after the win. “He made plays when we needed them. A lot of other guys, too.”

Of course, the other guys factored in, too. Marcus Smart and Derrick White both delivered their best performances of the series; Jaylen Brown was relatively efficient, if imperfect. But without Tatum, the Celtics wouldn’t have had much of a chance. Giannis Antetokounmpo did what Giannis tends to do — he dropped 44 points on 47 percent shooting, pulled down 20 rebounds, and made a shocking 14 of his 15 free-throw attempts. He trotted and charged his way to another MVP-level performance — fair enough, considering that he has two regular-season MVPs and one Finals MVP under his belt. Yet as dominant as Giannis was, he was outplayed by the Midwestern kid who stared down the moment on the road in Milwaukee and snatched it by the scruff of its collar. And frankly, it was about time.

Through much of this series, Tatum seemed to be lying in wait. Despite being Boston’s top source of offense for most of the series’ first five games — save his forgettable 10-point outing in the Game 3 loss — he had never quite exploded for the sort of performance that you’d expect from a long-listed MVP candidate. His 30-point night in Game 4 was matched by the heroic efforts of Al Horford, and he more or less faded into the background due to the varying outcomes of the other matchups. He was anything but a background player in Game 6; he was the creator, director, chief executive, and top-billed star.

“That was a big-time performance,” Jaylen Brown added after the win. “Definitely a signature game for the Celtics and for Jayson. That was big.”

“Big” doesn’t just cover it. Tatum’s impact on Game 6 was indelible and vital, the performance that will serve as the one we can point to as the bellwether for success should the Celtics close out the Bucks come Sunday. He wasn’t just unconscious from deep. He made quick decisions on whether or not he should drive or kick, or stop on a dime for the pullup jumper he’s been crafting for the better part of his still-young career. His drives still teeter back and forth between being purposeful and erratic, but when he’s as deep in his bag as he was last night, getting between him and the rim is as ill-advised as cutting off a wild Antetokounmpo en route to a slam, albeit less painful.

On top of the 46 points he scored, he created nine for his teammates through four assists. The Celtics have always been better when Tatum scores and creates for his teammates, and last night fit that bill to a tee.

But perhaps what Tatum did most imperatively was pace (and buoy) the Celtics in the fourth quarter with a performance as balanced as his team required. He didn’t defer when the Bucks started to chip away at Boston’s 14-point lead in the final frame — a number Celtics fans now fear, given the events of Game 5 in Boston. Instead, he scored 15 of Boston’s final 20 points after the Bucks cut the lead to four with just over nine minutes remaining in the game. At that point, Tatum checked back into the game and capped off his evening with 11 straight points, punctuating the win with an emphatic almost-dunk that sent him to the free-throw line and served, in hindsight, as the dagger.

“He went into another mode right there,” Marcus Smart said postgame. “We saw it in his eyes. He was aggressive, he was coming to us: ‘Give me the ball.’ And we’d give him the ball. He asked for it, and that’s what we’re going to do. Like I said, that’s why he gets paid the big bucks.”

Going into another mode was fitting given the stakes. The win in Game 6 marked Tatum’s first-ever win in a road elimination game, and it was the first for the Celtics since 2013. But Boston went on to lose that series against the Knicks — a better team and a formidable opponent for a hobbled, aging Celtics squad that was past its winning window. This team is just entering their own title window, and it’s winning efforts like Tatum’s last night that make you wonder how long it can stretch. But they still have this series to win, and this far-more-daunting opponent to topple. With Tatum at the front of the line, and with this group in general, he’d be silly not to like their chances.

“We are as close and as tough as I knew we were,” Tatum said after the game, his biggest yet. “I’ll take us any day.”

For all of the Friday the 13th, Jason Voorhees-inspired jokes, Tatum’s performance on Friday is hardly worth the caricature. When Voorhees performed his heinous deeds in those films, he did so from behind a hockey mask. On Friday night, Tatum did anything but hide behind a shield — he shed whatever mask he’d been donning as a defense in Games 1-5, bore his teeth, and delivered that boyish-yet-terrifying snarl he’s become accustomed to showing off on a nightly basis. Say “he’s only 19” all you want. Just make sure you mention that he’s a superstar, too.

On what got him going last night, Tatum put it succinctly: “Knowing that if we lost, our season would be over with. I was excited to play Game 6. This was a big moment for all of us – for myself and the team – for how we would respond.”

Sometimes, it’s just that simple.