It was just two years and three months ago when Jayson Tatum played his last Game 7 in front of a packed TD Garden against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Outside of a homecourt and a raucous crowd, the circumstances Tatum encountered against the Raptors on Friday night in Game 7 were eerily similar to the Celtics’ showdown with the Cavs in his rookie season.
Boston also held a 2-0 and 3-2 series lead in that series before Game 7 but couldn’t manage to finish off a veteran All-Star and an underwhelming supporting cast. Kyle Lowry is no LeBron James but he looked like the best player in this series in Toronto's three wins, leaving that title for the series up for grabs on Friday night.
Even though Tatum was only 20 years old in that 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, he was still the best player on that Celtics team in that series, a truth that wasn't clear to many just yet (including his teammates). It showed throughout Game 7 against the Cavs though as the 6-foot-9 forward erupted for a team-high 24 points in Game 7 including is poster dunk over James midway through the fourth quarter. It looked like Tatum had arrived on the NBA’s biggest stage in a hurry.
Everything fell apart for the Celtics from there though, with Tatum largely serving as an innocent bystander as the Cavs fought back on their way to an 87-79 win. After scoring 24 points in the first three and a half quarters, Tatum took just one shot in the game’s final six minutes as the Celtics combined to shoot 1-of-12 from the field during crunch time as Cleveland completed the comeback. The defeat left an imprint on Tatum.
“I know how tough it was when we lost my rookie year. Everybody don’t get this opportunity,” he said after Game 7.
Tatum and the Celtics were in danger of following a similar fate to 2018 in Game 7 against the Raptors. His teammates were suffering through a miserable shooting night (40 percent from the field, 23 percent from 3-point range) just like they did against Cleveland in 2018 as both teams were running on fumes at the end of a seven-game slugfest.
The end result changed this time for the 22-year-old Tatum in 2020. With Kemba Walker struggling with his shot and taken out of the C’s offense for large chunks of the game due to Nick Nurse’s box-and-1 defense, it was on Tatum to be the offensive engine to a Game 7 win. He responded with one of the best performances from a 22-year-old in the history of Game 7s.
🔥 @jaytatum0 comes up HUGE in GAME 7! 🔥
29 PTS | 12 REB | 7 AST | 4 3PM
ECF begin Tues. (9/15) on ESPN pic.twitter.com/ftHiZw88cb
— NBA (@NBA) September 12, 2020
The third-year forward posted game-highs in five separate categories including points (29), rebounds (12), assists (7), 3-pointers made (4) and free throws (10 attempts) in Boston’s dramatic 92-87 win. In a game that was featured sloppy play and stifling defense, Tatum was the Celtics’ security blanket, asserting himself as the best player in the series as he convincingly outplayed Lowry (16 points on 5-of-15 FG) with the season on the line. The performance marked just the second time in NBA history a player under 23 posted a 25-10-5 line in a Game 7. The other name to pull it off? Kobe Bryant.
“He’s a superstar,” Walker said of Tatum. “He showed it tonight. Anyone have any question or doubt on that? He showed it. Game 7, most important game of the series, he got the biggest rebound of this series. Special kid, you know? He works hard, he wants to win, he loves playing with his teammates. He was unbelievable.”
“I’m just grateful,” Jaylen Brown added after scoring 21 points and notching a career-high four steals. “I’m grateful to be alongside those guys. I talked to those guys last night. I told JT it’s an honor to be able to play with him and grow.”
Tatum has been putting up these kinds of lines periodically for much of the second half of the season but the difference in this one came late. Brad Stevens and Tatum appeared to learn from a 2018 late collapse and that’s not to go down without playing through your best. Back then, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris shot the Celtics out of a chance at the Finals with Tatum barely getting a sniff of the ball on most key late possessions.
Two years later, there would be no mistake on that front. Outside of a couple plays for Walker designed to get him going, Boston’s fourth-quarter offense revolved around Tatum. He scored 18 of his 29 points in the second half and fueled Boston’s