Jayson Tatum is not 19 anymore. He’s 24 and has enjoyed a lifetime of NBA playoff games for the Boston Celtics, but none is as iconic as Friday’s performance as his season is at stake.
The Celtics suffered a devastating collapse in Game 5, extending a 14-point lead with 10 minutes left to give the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Not only was a stellar season flashing before their eyes, but a legitimate shot at winning the championship was faltering. Boston faced the NBA nightmare — an eliminator against Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.
TD Garden was silent. Celtics staff were somber. “We gave it away,” said Jaylen Brown, who emerged alone from an empty arena on Wednesday. Her coach Ime Udoka added: “We missed a golden opportunity.”
Tatum took a different tact. He could sense the questions at his post-game press conference demanding an acknowledgment of defeat, sometimes even smiling, before assuring Boston, “The streak isn’t over.”
“I could come up here and sulk, be sad and I’m sure there would be a big story about how we were defeated and I don’t believe us,” he said. “You can’t change what happened. It sure stinks, but it’s 3-2 and it’s the first in four. There’s no point in being sad…because that won’t do anything for the next game. Always be optimistic and believe in yourselves, believe in the group that we can win the game on Friday.”
So he did, realizing his all-time great potential in a 108-95 win to force Sunday’s Game 7 in Boston.
“That was our season at stake,” Tatum said. “Leave everything on the ground. That’s the mindset I have – the mindset we all have – so I wouldn’t regret it. I was just trying to do what was necessary.”
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 for all but 3:42 of the first quarter on Friday night when Antetokounmpo made it clear he wouldn’t make the Celtics’ task any easier than near impossible. But Tatum answered every call.
“That’s why he gets the big bucks,” Celtics teammate Marcus Smart told reporters. “That’s it, right there, for moments like this. 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 past Jrue Holiday for layups, over Brook Lopez and through any other Bucks who dared defend him. He had 18 points at halftime and passed bucket after bucket to Antetokounmpo. Tatum added 12 more in the third quarter, the last two of which tickled the string in Bobby Portis’ big eyes on a 23-foot stepback and gave Boston an 82-68 advantage in the closing seconds of the third quarter.
Tatum opened his bag, took out 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 me and the team how we would react. Losing Game 5 would either make us or break us and I think we showed a lot of tenacity and growth coming out here and taking the win on the road and giving ourselves a chance.”
But this was Antetokounmpo’s house, and he was trying to tell his visitors that they were no longer welcome. The reigning Finals MVP had 32 points of his own in three quarters. He had his 40 early in the fourth when his 3-pointer sliced Boston’s once 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 almost mirrored his 50-point Game 6 that ended the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 Finals, right down to his near-perfect night after the free-throw line .
Only Tatum withstood Antetokounmpo’s barrage and scored the knockout. He scored Boston’s next 10 points, half of which he delivered with contested jumpers past the shot clock to push the lead back to 95-87. Milwaukee didn’t come off the mat. Four straight free throws from Tatum took the lead to 13 in two minutes and earned him 46 points that night. The Bucks threw in the towel and pulled their starters.
“You have to give him credit,” said Antetokounmpo. “He played incredibly. He led his team to a win. He made a lot of hard shots. As a team we did a good job of being in front of him and getting him to shoot contested 3s, contested 2s but he made them and you have to respect that. He played amazing.”
Only Wilt Chamberlain has scored more victory points in a first-round elimination before his 25th birthday. Chamberlain scored 50 points against Bill Russell’s Celtics in Game 5 of the 1960 Eastern Conference Finals. He failed to match the effort in a Game 6 loss two days later. That’s Tatum’s task in Game 7 against the Antetokounmpo Bucks on Sunday. On the other hand, a title fight and greatness awaits you.
And Tatum takes that same reassuring attitude home to Boston.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said about 36 hours before the tip. “Just winning that game and giving us a chance to go back, that’s it. It’s about anything and it’s going to be fun. This is supposed to be fun. It’s basketball. Biggest moments, biggest stage and when it boils downstairs, I just go out and have fun.”
Tatum competed with LeBron James as a rookie in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. He scored 50 points against Kevin Durant in last season’s playoffs and won his Brooklyn Nets this year. And he just beat Giannis Antetokounmpo in a street elimination match. He gave the three greatest players of their generation everything they could take. Jayson Tatum is not 19 anymore. He’s an NBA superstar.
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Ben Rohrbach is a senior editor at Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach