BOSTON — When it came time for the Boston Celtics, a team possibly rattled after two consecutive humiliating away losses squarely put the pressure that comes with participating in the Eastern Conference Finals back on its shoulders, they turned to, arguably, its most steady, level-headed player to put them back on track.
That unflappable player was a man all of 20 years young, but the massive game that Jayson Tatum brought onto the parquet floor on Wednesday was matched by his cool demeanor, a level of swag that has become infectious as the Celtics have now moved within one game of reaching the 2018 NBA Finals.
As impressive as Tatum’s stat line was – 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals – in the Celtics’ 96-83 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden, what made the performance even more glittering was that his numbers belied the struggles of the team on the offensive end all game long, with Boston’s 36.5 percent shooting from the floor marking the first time since the 2004 Detroit Pistons that a team won a conference finals game while shooting below 37 percent from the field.
To go along with the team’s stellar defense on the other end, Boston, somehow, was barely threatened in the contest, maintaining a double-digit lead for the final 20 minutes. Tatum did not struggle, however, as the young Celtics climbed on the back of their most precocious cherub to carry them to a victory.
“Obviously, we needed his scoring greatly,” said Boston head coach Brad Stevens. “We had a lot of guys that struggled with their shot tonight, and he made some big plays. I think that he would be the first to tell you that he enjoys playing in these types of games and was looking forward to tonight after the two in Cleveland.”
That is exactly what Tatum says about playing on a stage as big as the NBA’s version of the Final Four, turning what should be a pressure-packed situation for someone who was playing in high school basketball just two years ago into almost unadulterated joy that might be seen from a child gallivanting at an amusement park.
“I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games,” said Tatum, who has now scored the fourth-most points ever by a rookie in the history of the NBA Playoffs with 312. “I think that’s when I have the most fun, when things are on the line. A lot of guys stepped up tonight. I can’t say it enough: We’re one win away from going to The Finals, especially after everything we’ve been through.”
What should have been a period of transition for Tatum, adjusting to life in the NBA after one season of college basketball at Duke, became a season where the rookie was asked to do much, much more than just learn on the fly and be a contributor off the bench. The myriad of injuries suffered by the Celtics since the start of the season, most notably to new acquisition Gordon Hayward in the first quarter of the first game of the season in Cleveland, thrust Tatum into a spotlight even hotter than he experienced at any point in Durham while playing for Coach K in the ACC, a pressure-packed situation in itself mind you.
Tonight, Tatum was in attack mode from the very beginning, scoring nine first-quarter points and drawing fouls inside on drives to the basket. He also came away with two steals late in the quarter, as the Celtics opened up a 32-19 lead after the first period.
Tatum’s third quarter was a mirror image of the first, also scoring nine points as Boston padded their 11-point halftime lead by five more points by the end of the quarter.
Tatum’s evolution to the edge of professional superstardom, while surprising to some given its rapidity, is starting to become par for the course when operating under the tutelage of Stevens, who realizes the importance of Tatum being wise beyond his years in helping the makeup and resolve of this edition of the Celtics.
“I think that we misuse the word development sometimes. I think we’re in the business of enhancement,” said Stevens. “I think Jayson was ready to deal with everything that comes with this because of who he is and his family and all his coaches before, because he’s a very emotionally steady, smart player that was going to perform at a high level above his age. I don’t know that anybody could guess this as a rookie, but you knew he was going to be really good.”
The veteran the Celtics most look to for leadership in setting the tone for others to follow ended up being one of the many who continue to be impressed as they, in a role reversal, followed in Tatum’s footsteps.
“Yes, that was very encouraging to see Jayson really just taking on the challenge, really playing well on offense, playing well on defense,” said forward Al Horford, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds. “Just very poised for most of the night. I was just very happy to see him have such a good game.”
Even before the start of tonight’s contest, Stevens knew he wanted more of his offense to fall on the shoulders of Tatum, so much so that Tatum ended up playing 40:45 out of a possible 48 minutes, the third time Tatum has played north of 40 minutes in a game in the NBA Playoffs – the first in which the game did not go to overtime.
“I knew I was going to play a little bit more in the first quarter, just to look to be more aggressive,” said Tatum. “Coach trusts that I’m going to make the right play, whether it’s scoring or just finding guys out at the pick-and-rolls and just making the right decision.”
As the Celtics head back to Cleveland in hopes to clinch their first NBA Finals appearance since 2010 while looking to snap out of their travel malaise that has seen them lose six of their seven road games in the postseason, Boston needs to lean on the players it trusts to come through in the hostile environment of Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night.
Whom the Celtics trust most might just be the 20-year-old Tatum, which might not be so shocking given that another rookie forward back in 1980, Larry Bird, went from rookie to champion in less than a year after entering the league. The comparison might be unfair, but, as we know with Tatum, it takes much more to phase one of the more grounded and consistent rookies the NBA Playoffs have ever seen.