Sometimes watching Jayson Tatum play basketball leaves you wanting to see more. The beautiful jumper, the leaping ability, the smooth gait, the long, muscular frame all scream potential star.
But sometimes the sum of those impressive tools don’t always add up to a player putting his stamp on the game in a way that makes opponents fear him and spectators cheer him.
He doesn’t disappear necessarily, but he does blend into the background. Sometimes, but not at playoff time.
Tatum delivered in a big way in the Celtics’ surprising run all the way to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago and he came up big in Wednesday night’s 99-91 comeback victory over the Pacers at the Garden, when spectacular Kyrie Irving desperately needed a wing man to take advantage of his night filled with draw-and-dish play-making.
Tatum was there to finish what Irving started, scoring 26 points and shooting 3-of-6 from 3-point range. Tatum struck from the corner, on drives to the hoop and on dunks after cutting to the basket.
“I get really excited,” Tatum said of the playoffs. “It’s the best time of the year for basketball and it’s the most important time of the year. You’ve got to try to be your best, be aggressive, because every game really counts.”
Irving was in facilitator mode for most of the night and still managed to score 37 points.
That’s how spectacular he was on a night he was the best scorer, passer and energizer on the floor. With Victor Oladipo’s season ended by injury, it wasn’t difficult to pick out the only All-Star playing in this quarterfinal series that the Celtics lead 2-0.
Irving was amazing, but without Tatum cashing in on the opportunities created by his fellow one-and-done Dukie, this very well could have been a game remembered as the night Kyrie accomplished just about everything a man can on a basketball court without winning.
Next year, if Irving re-signs with the Celtics and they somehow trade for Anthony Davis without surrendering Tatum, it’s conceivable the Celtics could go from having one All-Star to three.
But there is plenty of time to worry about next year. There is a series to be won first before the competition level takes a huge spike upward. Technically, winning a best-of-seven series requires four victories, but in this case the final two are just a formality with the details of when and where to be filled in later.
The Pacers were gritty enough to build a halftime lead in the first game and to open a 12-point early in the fourth quarter of Game 2, but they don’t have the firepower to win 4-of-5 from a Celtics team that has a far deeper pool of scorers.
The Celtics outscored the Pacers 29-9 in the final 10:13 and 10-0 in the final 2:16. Tatum scored six of the final 10 points.
After Al Horford’s perfectly executed blocked shot of a driving Bojan Bogdanovic, Jaylen Brown spotted Tatum open in the right corner and fired a beauty of a pass that Tatum turned into a 3-pointer that put the Celtics up 92-91.
“J.B.’s pass, him coming down the court he could have easily shot the layup there or tried to get fouled,” Tatum said. “That was a hell of a pass by J.B., so I had to knock it down.”
Tatum found a cutting Gordon Hayward alone under the hoop for a bucket that put the C’s up 94-91 with 12.1 seconds left and after the Pacers threw the ball away, Tatum put the game out of reach by cutting to the hoop and turning a pass from Horford into an emphatic dunk.
“We were just all on the same page toward the end,” Tatum said. “We were making great plays, sharing the ball, getting stops.”
After a sluggish three quarters from everybody except Irving and Tatum, the Celtics exploded with everybody participating and nobody watching.
“In the playoffs you don’t win quickly or lose quickly,” Tatum said. “It’s a long game. We needed everybody out there.”