Moments removed from a season-saving fourth quarter – trying to make sense of it all after a woeful start and spectacular finish – Jayson Tatum answered a question from ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth with a refreshing blend of honesty and swagger.
“How do you describe the confidence you had to trust yourself down the stretch?,” Hubbard asked.
“I’m one of the, humbly, one of the best basketball players in the world,” Tatum said. “Go through struggles. Go through slumps. It’s a long game.”
"I'm ... humbly, one of the best basketball players in the world."— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 12, 2023
Jayson Tatum after Game 6 win vs. Sixers pic.twitter.com/ANd13uB0MD
Tatum started Game 6 with shocking 0-for-11 from the floor and didn’t hit his first field goal until the 8:34 mark in the third quarter. He showed signs of life in the third and erupted for 16 in a breakout fourth, outscoring the 76ers himself and willing the Celtics to a signature 95-86 road win.
He finished 5-for-21 with four turnovers, but the fourth quarter may have been one of the most significant stretches of his career. Tatum continued to trust his work and buried pivotal, clutch 3’s when they mattered most.
“It was his time,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “And he delivered.”
Tatum has had cold starts before, but this one was cold cold. Despite his poor shooting, he rebounded, found his teammates and played hard on both ends, but he had serious trouble putting the ball in the basket.
He looked out of sorts, a step slow and straight up confused at times. On one play, he beat his man off the dribble and blew an uncontested layup while spiraling into the cameras. On another, he started to attempt a transition 3 with a hand in his face, then thought better of it, got caught in the air and turned the ball over.
Fans wanted him benched, duct-taped to his seat, then traded for Dennis Schroder, Daniel Theis and a 2028 third-rounder an hour later. They thought the season was over. They thought he was finished.
He was just getting started.
“I’ve played a lot of games,” Tatum said. “I know it’s not all about scoring. In that moment, still be aggressive, make the right play. I just kept looking at the time. I just kept telling myself, ‘I got time to make a difference.’ And I believed that.”
It was his heroics that put the Celtics over the top, but those around him helped guide him to the promised land. Jaylen Brown reminded him along the way to not be apprehensive and that the product didn’t have to be perfect.
Mazzulla credited Tatum for continuing to play the right way even through the slump and not letting one shot affect another. During a timeout late in the fourth, Mazzulla pulled him aside and told him: “I love you.”
“It’s not hard to keep shooting when you’re missing,” Mazzulla said. “It’s hard to forget about the miss and play defense. That’s what I’m most proud about him tonight.”
"The standard that is set for him to where if he's not scoring, he's not playing good basketball is wrong."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 12, 2023
Joe Mazzulla on Jayson Tatum impacting the Celtics winning on a tough shooting night pic.twitter.com/DQbMbkTYOD
Four free throws helped get him going early in the fourth. He made one last silly play. when he committed a clear path foul on Tyrese Maxey, but he didn’t dwell on that, either.
He hit one 3, then another 39 seconds later, then one more two minutes after that, then a final silencer late for good measure. Four free throws, four 3’s, four more quarters of basketball.
“I feel like he deserved it,” Robert Williams said. “He was playing the game the right way the whole time. Me and Malcolm (Brogdon) went up to him and told him, ‘you’re making the right plays, you’re playing for your teammates, the game will reward you at the end.’”
"Me and Malcolm went up to him and told him, 'you're playing the game the right way.'"— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 12, 2023
Rob Williams on JT pic.twitter.com/Oa7ZMEkLgR
Tatum said “all it took was one,” and he praised his teammates for keeping his mind right.
“It’s tough to believe in somebody when they only made one shot,” Tatum said. “But I know my guys believe in me until the clock hits zero.”
Was it his best game ever? Nope. His most efficient? Not even close. His most dominant? Not at all. But it might have been the most mature game of his career.
He stayed patient, continued to grind, then got hot at just the right moment. It was just enough to keep the Celtics’ season alive.