When asked about Jayson Tatum following the Celtics’ Game 7 win over the Raptors, Boston coach Brad Stevens, never one to get too high or too low, delivered the biggest understatement of the NBA season as he wrapped up his response.
“Tatum’s really good, does a lot of really good things,” Stevens said.
In Friday night’s “loser leaves the bubble” match, Tatum posted 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, making him the third player in NBA history to lead both teams outright in those categories in a Game 7. The other two? Larry Bird and LeBron James.
The 22-year-old Tatum also became the second-youngest player ever with a 25-10-5 line in a Game 7. The youngest? Some guy named Kobe Bryant.
It wasn’t easy for Tatum and the Celtics to rid themselves of the Raptors, because nothing ever is with this Toronto group. The final contest of their second-round series felt like a heavyweight bout with exhausted fighters throwing sloppy punches and leaning on each other in order to avoid hitting the mat.
But Tatum is the kind of player who can break through the toughest defenses and land a clean blow. He is tall enough (6-8) to shoot over smaller guards. His handle is tight enough to create space against bigger forwards. His passing has hit another level during these playoffs (four games with six or more assists vs. the Raptors), and his coaches and teammates have noticed his development.
“He just has a great feel for the game, and he’s seeing a lot of different coverages,” Stevens said. “In this series, he saw everything you could possibly see. He’s done a great job handling it.”
On top of all that, Tatum is a top-tier wing defender, and there are never questions about his effort. On what Stevens called one of the plays of the game — along with an incredible block by Marcus Smart late in the fourth quarter — Tatum sprinted into the lane and corralled a missed free throw with Boston leading by just two points and 35 seconds remaining. He was fouled on the rebound, and he hit one of two free throws to push that lead to three.
“He’s a superstar. He showed it tonight,” Celtics guard Kemba Walker said. “Anybody [who] had any question or doubt in that, he showed it. Game 7, most important game of the series, he got the biggest rebound of the series. Special, special kid. He works hard. He wants to win. He loves playing with his teammates. He was unbelievable.”
Walker may be one of the elder statesmen on this Celtics roster, but Tatum is way ahead in terms of playoff experience, having played in nearly twice as many postseason games. And while Walker is an All-Star, Smart is an All-Defensive First Team player and Jaylen Brown is a terrific young forward in his own right, Tatum will determine this team’s ceiling.
When it comes down to crunch time and every person in the gym can recite the scouting reports forward and backward, someone needs to take over and create something where nothing exists. Tatum is now expected to be that someone, the No. 1 option, the “give me the ball and get out of my way” guy when the set falls apart.
Tatum himself will tell you age is no excuse.
“I don’t really look at, you know, I’m one of the young guys,” Tatum told the “NBA on TNT” crew after Game 7. “I just try to be the best player on the court every night. I think that’s the mentality I take every time I step on the floor.”
As he has shown throughout this run, Tatum isn’t just trying to be the best player on the court every night. He often is.
He’s not really good. He’s a superstar.