BOSTON – Jayson Tatum didn’t just look like one of the best players in the world during Sunday’s Game 7 matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers.
He played like the best player in the world.
Humbly, of course.
Tatum had the performance of his life to help keep his team’s season alive, delivering an NBA Game 7 scoring record of 51 points to lead the Boston Celtics past Philly, 112-88, and onto the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year.
Also for the second straight year, the Celtics fell behind their second-round opponent 3-2 only to fight through two potential elimination games – in both instances a Game 6 on the road and a Game 7 at home – to become one of the final four teams standing.
“Our season could've been over in Game 6,” Tatum said of his mindset coming into another do-or-die game. “Just being in another Game 7, being able to come back home in front of our fans. I was really excited just for the moment to come out here and play today."
He sure played like it.
JT was scorching right out of the gate, dropping 11 in the first quarter and 14 more in the second, as the Celtics went into halftime with a 55-52 edge. Then, he helped them break the game open in the third quarter, singlehandedly outscoring the 76ers, 17-10, finishing with more than half of his team’s 33 points in the frame.
Tatum closed out with a nine-point fourth quarter, during which Boston's lead soared as high as 30 points. The All-NBA First Teamer finished 17-of-28 from the field, 6-of-10 from 3-point range, and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line while becoming the first player in franchise history to record multiple career 50-point games in the playoffs (he now has two such efforts and three including play-in games).
Tatum also grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, dished out a team-high five assists, and snagged a game-high-tying two steals during his 41-plus minutes of action. And to top it all off, he didn’t commit a single turnover, making him the first player in NBA postseason history to score more than 50 points in a turnover-free game.
When Tatum enters one of these unstoppable zones, it’s hard not to lean back and enjoy the show – even as one of his teammates.
“It’s a movie. It’s a big movie,” said Marcus Smart. “Being able to just sit back, eat your popcorn and watch. Sometimes we do get in that mode where we forget that we’re on the court playing with him and you’ve gotta continue to play because he’s able to make shots at a high difficulty and get really hot like he did tonight. But it’s a beauty. It’s a thing to watch. He works his tail off every day, he comes and has a game like Game 6 and then he comes out here and explodes. That’s what you ask for from one of your best players.”
The Game 6 performance that Smart referenced wasn’t one of Tatum’s finest. He had just one point in the first half of Thursday night's game in Philly, but he bounced back with authority in the fourth quarter, personally outscoring the 76ers 16-13 to force Sunday’s Game 7.
Then, for him to carry his momentum into the deciding contest of the series, was a special thing to witness.
“The thing that I'm most proud of him is just how resilient he is,” said Al Horford. “Because this series wasn't ideal for him. It wasn't going well for him individually on the offensive end, but he continued to defend. He continued to have an impact on the game. And when he broke through in that Game 6, I feel like that really helped him get going and it was just great to see him put on this show here tonight.”
Tatum said that one of the driving forces behind his performance was the energy boost he received from the crowd. He remarked how it was the loudest he’s heard TD Garden in about a year, and to have his faithful fans backing him up and believing in him made a difference.
“I can’t express it enough – the genuine love that I kind of feel from the crowd,” Tatum said. “Whether it’s pregame, during the game at the free-throw line. I’ve been here my whole career. I feel that they embrace me almost as one of their own, and that means a lot. I love being here, I love getting to put on this uniform. I love being able to play big games, to put on good performances in front of them, and they feed off emotion and energy, right? And it’s reciprocated. I can’t express enough that I just love being here and love playing in front of this crowd.”
And to see him make history on the biggest stage was extraordinary to witness.
“It's just so remarkable,” Horford said of Tatum’s performance. “In a Game 7, this type of magnitude, there are so many emotions. There's a lot of intensity and for him to play like that, I mean, that's what special players do.”
It’s what the best players do.