Jayson Tatum’s two-way stardom emerges against Kawhi Leonard

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Jayson Tatum not only had a chance to put the game away in the second overtime of Thursday’s thriller against the Clippers but he had a chance to give himself a new career-high in the process. The 21-year-old had posted an efficient 39 points already against a contending Clippers squad that was hungry for a win after dropping two of its last three games. The Celtics were nursing a two-point lead with just under two minutes remaining when Tatum got separation once again against his man (Landry Shamet) and drove into the lane, drawing four Clippers defenders in the process.

Putting up the shot in this instance given Tatum’s night (14-of-23 from the field) would have been understandable. Yet, the third-year forward saw the crowd and let his instincts take over. After losing control of the dribble momentarily, he turned back towards the top of the key and lobbed the ball to an open Gordon Hayward, who was in the midst of a dreadful shooting night. Tatum turned down the chance at 40 points to make the right basketball play and the team was rewarded accordingly. Hayward made the 3, made a big block on the other end on the next possession and the Celtics found themselves with their 11th win over the past 13 games thanks largely to Tatum’s heroics against some of the NBA’s best.

“He was incredible,” Kemba Walker said. “He made every right play. He made every big shot. He was the best player on the court tonight.”

Getting called the best player on the court is no small feat when one is going up against the reigning Finals MVP and current holder of the best player on the planet in Kawhi Leonard. Tatum didn’t do most of his damage (39 points, 14-of-23 FG, 5-of-10 3p, 9 rebounds) against Leonard himself but he punished mismatches amid a switching Clippers defense all night. His offensive ascension in recent weeks (29.0 ppg on 50 percent shooting in the last five games) has been no secret and doing it on a national platform clued others into his rise.

“He had to play against one of the league’s best players and he met a great challenge with it,” Brad Stevens said. “I thought both teams just played so hard and both teams looked so spent at the end, we were fortunate to come up with enough balls at the end to win the game. Quite a job by a lot of different guys in both locker rooms and Jayson was obviously terrific tonight.”

The array of offensive moves Tatum showcased in this victory from stepback 3s to nifty up-and-under will be what gets him plenty of acclaim in the coming days. Yet, it was Tatum’s work in other areas of the floor that deserves the bigger spotlight and perhaps is the bigger story coming out of this win. Tatum’s defense has been stellar all year long but his work individually against Kawhi Leonard in crunch time of this matchup was the biggest story of the night.

Fourth quarter and OT splits

Tatum: 6/9 FG, 17 points
Leonard: 2/9 FG, 5 points

Tatum was the primary defender on Tatum for nearly all of those shots attempts and his work in slowing down the league’s arguably top isolation scorer was essential in the Celtics escaping with a 141-133 win in double overtime.

Leonard finished an inefficient 10-of-27 from the field in this one over 46 minutes and the Celtics managed to do this without committing double coverage to the All-Star for much of the night. Few defenders in the league have the length and strength to contain Leonard in most areas of the floor but Tatum showed the best of what his defense had to offer in both the fourth quarter and overtime periods.

Tatum defending post

Leonard can be a bully down low with his strength but Tatum has clearly added plenty of his muscle in his third