Published On: Mon, May 28th, 2018

Tatum flashes superstar potential in heart-wrenching Game 7 loss

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BOSTON – Game 7 proved to be too big of a moment for most of the young Celtics – but not rookie Jayson Tatum.

In the first quarter of Sunday’s winner-take-all game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tatum provided his team with a spark, scoring nine points. He would finish with 24 points and seven rebounds after a performance that left everyone in awe.

“Unbelievable,” teammate Al Horford said of Tatum’s rookie season. “To be in these pressure situations in the playoffs. His composure, making play after play and really just poised and ready for moments all year. I couldn’t ever imagine him playing at this level and in this magnitude.”

Injuries to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward this season thrust Tatum into the spotlight, and he often assumed the role of top option in Boston’s offense. He was the team’s leading playoff scorer, averaging 18.5 points per game.

“He can get a lot better,” his coach Brad Stevens said. “That’s the fun part. I think there are so many little things that he’ll continue to improve upon, but he’s not afraid. He’s tough-minded, and obviously has a special talent for putting the ball in the basket.”

Tatum is doing this having just turned 20 in March. He’s not even old enough to walk into a bar, order a beer, and watch his own highlights on television.


The one play they’ll be talking about years from now came in the fourth quarter. With the game and the series in the balance, Tatum drove to the basket and threw down a thunderous dunk on LeBron James, giving him a chest bump afterward for effect. On the next possession, Tatum hit a three-pointer to put the Celtics ahead.

It was a sequence that felt like the official pronouncement from Tatum that he is ready to be a leading superstar on a championship-contending team. The only strange part is that, in his rookie season, it feels like he is already there.

After the buzzer sounded, James sought out Tatum and embraced him on the court. The two had a brief exchange.

“I just love everything about the kid,” James said. “I just know he’s built for stardom.”

Tatum, as you would expect, took that to heart.

“That was a special moment for me,” Tatum said. “Because it’s different. It’s my first year in the league. I grew up watching LeBron and asking him to follow me back on Twitter, going to his camps. So just in my first year, to be able to compete against a player like him and be a few shots away from beating him and his team to go to the championship is something I will always remember.”

The Celtics have spent the past half-decade putting together a contending team, a rebuilding effort launched by Danny Ainge’s shrewd trade which sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn in exchange for a series of first-round picks that have built the foundation of this team.

Tatum was acquired using one of those picks, when the Celtics traded down from the No. 1 spot to No. 3 in last year’s draft, adding a lottery pick from Philadelphia in the process. For years, Ainge was criticized by a fanbase tired of watching the team continue to add draft capital while not landing a superstar.

Now, the Celtics have one, and probably more. Beyond what Tatum can become, Boston will have Irving and Hayward healthy to start next season. Throw in Jaylen Brown, seemingly the perfect complementary two-way wing player on a championship team, and Terry Rozier, who stepped up in Irving’s absence and proved his worth as a starter in this league, and the Celtics might have a problem most teams would dream of: Sorting out a pecking order and hierarchy among their star players.

“Training camp can’t come soon enough,” Stevens said. “Those will be some fun practices.”


Despite their youth and the fact these playoffs felt like a three-round prep course for playoff runs to come, the Celtics still have to feel disappointed by losing Game 7 at home on Sunday. Opportunities to advance to the NBA Finals are rare in this league, even if everything feels set up for the Celtics to be a favorite in the East for the foreseeable future. Free agency, health, ego, and injuries are just a few factors that can derail any potential contender.

But Stevens chose another perspective after Sunday’s loss.

“The pain is part of the path,” he said. “We’ve been really fortunate to continuously get better the last couple of years and put ourselves in better positions. But when it ends, it’s painful, and that’s part of the path. And so we have to let it motivate us.”

If these playoffs yielded one major takeaway about these Celtics, it’s that they have a superstar in the making in Tatum, and that raises this team’s ceiling.

“To perform the way he’s performed, he plays like a five-, six-, seven-year vet,” Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, a cousin of Tatum, said. “He’s always poised, always under control, never gets sped up, really (has) no weaknesses offensively. He can post, he can take you off the dribble, run pick-and-roll, catch and shoot.

“He’s a very young, talented player, and he’s going to be one of our best players in this league in a couple of years.”

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)



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