Jayson Tatum is no longer 19 years old. He is 24, and he has already experienced a lifetime of NBA playoff games for the Boston Celtics, but none so legendary as Friday’s performance with his season on the line.
The Celtics suffered a devastating collapse in Game 5, blowing a 14-point lead with 10 minutes remaining to give the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Not only did a stellar season flash before their eyes, but a legitimate chance to win the championship had flatlined. Boston faced the NBA’s nightmare — an elimination game against Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.
TD Garden was silent. Celtics employees were somber. “We gave it away,” said Jaylen Brown, who exited an emptied arena alone on Wednesday. Added their coach, Ime Udoka: “We gave up a golden opportunity.”
Tatum took a different tact. He could sense the line of questioning in his postgame news conference was seeking some admission of defeat, even smiling at times, before reassuring Boston, “Series is not over.”
“I could come up here and pout, be sad, and I’m sure there would be a big story about how we’re defeated, and I don’t believe us,” he said. “You can’t change what happened. It stinks, for sure, but it’s 3-2, and it’s the first to four. There’s no sense in being sad … because that’s not going to do anything for the next game. Always be optimistic and believe in yourself, believe in the group, that we can win the game on Friday.”
So, he did, fully realizing his all-time great potential in a 108-95 win to force Game 7 in Boston on Sunday.
“This was our season on the line,” said Tatum. “Leave it all on the floor. That’s the mindset that I have — the mindset that we all have — so I wasn’t going to have any regrets. I was just trying to do what it took.”
Tatum’s first 3-pointer came less than three minutes into Game 6. His second gave the Celtics a 15-6 lead 66 seconds later. Boston led on Friday night for all but 3:42 of the first quarter, when Antetokounmpo made clear he would not make the Celtics’ task any easier than near-impossible. But Tatum answered every call.
“That’s why he gets paid the big bucks,” Celtics teammate Marcus Smart told reporters. “That’s it, right there, for moments like that. I was telling him the whole game, ‘Just be you, man,’ and he was.”
He started 4 for 4 from 3-point range. He drove for layups past Jrue Holiday, over Brook Lopez and through any other Bucks who dared defend him. He had 18 points at the half, matching Antetokounmpo bucket for bucket. Tatum added 12 more in the third quarter, the last two of which tickled the twine on a step-back 23-footer in Bobby Portis’ wide eyes and gave Boston an 82-68 edge in the final seconds of the third quarter.
Tatum opened his bag, removed the contents and gave Milwaukee everything he had.
“I was excited to play today,” he said. “This is a big moment for all of us, for myself and the team, just how we would respond. Losing Game 5 was either going to make us or break us, and I think we showed a lot of toughness and growth, coming out here and getting the win on the road and giving ourselves a chance.”
But this was Antetokounmpo’s house, and he was trying to tell his visitors they were no longer welcome. The reigning Finals MVP had 32 points of his own through three quarters. He had his 40 early in the fourth, when his 3-pointer slashed Boston’s erstwhile 18-point lead to 85-81. It was all too reminiscent of his 3 that turned Milwaukee’s fourth-quarter comeback in Game 5 and downright mirrored his 50-point Game 6 that closed out the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 Finals, down to his near-perfect night from the free-throw line.
Only, Tatum withstood Antetokounmpo’s barrage and delivered the knockout. He scored Boston’s next 10 points, half of which he delivered with contested jumpers as the shot clock expired, to push the lead back to 95-87. Milwaukee could not get off the mat. Four straight Tatum free throws amped the lead to 13 inside of two minutes and gave him 46 points on the night. The Bucks threw in the towel and pulled their starters.
“You’ve got to give him credit,” said Antetokounmpo. “He played unbelievable. He led his team to a win. He made a lot of tough shots. As a team, we were doing a good job being in front of him, making him shoot contested 3s, contested 2s, but he made them, and you’ve got to respect that. He played unbelievable.”
Only Wilt Chamberlain has scored more points in victory when facing elimination after the first round before his 25th birthday. Chamberlain netted 50 points against Bill Russell’s Celtics in Game 5 of the 1960 Eastern Conference finals. He did not match the effort in a Game 6 loss two days later. That is Tatum’s assignment in Game 7 against Antetokounmpo’s Bucks on Sunday. A title shot and greatness awaits on the other side.
And Tatum is taking his same reassuring attitude home to Boston.
“I’m looking forward to it, truly,” he said some 36 hours before tipoff. “Just winning this game and giving ourselves a chance to go back, this is it. It’s do or die, and it’s going to be fun. This is supposed to be fun. It’s basketball. Biggest moments, biggest stage, and when it boils down, I just go out there and have fun.”
Tatum went toe to toe with LeBron James as a rookie in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals. He scored 50 points opposite Kevin Durant in last season’s playoffs and swept his Brooklyn Nets this year. And he just out-dueled Giannis Antetokounmpo in a road elimination game. He has given the three greatest players of their generation all they could handle. Jayson Tatum isn’t 19 anymore. He’s an NBA superstar.
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