It’s that time of the year again: Awards Season at Celtics.com! As we do every offseason, we’re handing out six virtual trophies as we roll through this year’s Celtics.com Awards Series. There are no acceptance speeches, and the voting committee is made up of only two of your favorite beat writers, but we do have some top-flight Celtics performances to outline. So here we go...
There is no debating this award. Clear-cut. No question. Etch it in stone.
Jayson Tatum was Boston’s MVP in 2020-21, and for the second season in a row.
Tatum wasn’t just good this past season. He wasn’t even just great. He was elite, all while earning his second consecutive All-Star appearance, his first All-Star start, and an audacious All-NBA snub.
Boston’s prized wing appeared in 64 of the team’s 72 games, which ranked second behind Payton Pritchard, despite the fact that Tatum was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January and felt lingering aftereffects the rest of the season. While starting all of those games and playing through the side effects, Tatum managed to lead the team in a long list of categories, including made field goals (605), made 3-pointers (187), made free throws (295), total rebounds (472), total assists (276), and total steals (75).
Through all of those made shots, Tatum put up the second-highest scoring average by a Celtic in the last 15 seasons with an average of 26.4 points per game. That number also ranked 11th in the league overall and fifth among forwards.
There were a few players who did it better than him when it came to scoring average, but there were none who did it better than him when it came to notching 50-point games. Tatum, at 23 years old, racked up four of them this season – two during the regular season, and two during postseason play – to lead the entire NBA in that category. He also added in three more games of at least 40 points, and 17 more games of at least 30 points on the season.
Amid all of those electric scoring performances, there is one that stands above the rest, and that is his April 30 performance against the San Antonio Spurs. That performance was one for the ages – and we don’t take that statement lightly.
Tatum burned the Spurs with 60 points to not only set a new career high in scoring, but to also tie Larry Bird for the highest single-game scoring output in Celtics franchise history. Think about all of the incredible performances that have taken place in Celtics history. None have surpassed Tatum’s effort in the scoring column that late-April night.
What made this 60-point gem even more special is the fact that it spurred a historic comeback by the Celtics. It was The Miracle on Causeway, sparked by The Jayson Tatum Game.
Boston trailed by as many as 32 points during the first half and by 29 points at halftime, yet Tatum and the C’s stormed back during the second half to grab an astonishing victory by a count of 143-140 in overtime. The win at the time marked the second-largest deficit overcome in NBA history, and teams had lost 1,014 consecutive games after trailing by 32 or more points before Tatum and the Celtics put a stop to that streak.
Following the game, Tatum couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that he and Bird were one in the same atop one of Boston’s all-time record lists.
“That is… it’s hard to – I don’t know,” he said following the game. “Obviously anytime you’re mentioned with a top-10 player of all time in any stat, obviously that is a good thing. It’s something I never I think would have imagined at this age.”
Emphasis on the “at this age.” Remember, Tatum is only 23 years old, yet he’s already making significant NBA history in the scoring column. That’s not all he did, however. His season went well beyond scoring as he put together a case for an All-NBA nod that was overlooked by far too many media members.
One year after being selected to the All-NBA Third Team, Tatum set new career highs in scoring (26.4 PPG), rebounding (7.4 RPG,) in assists (4.3 APG), in free throw attempts per game (5.3), in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.61), in true-shooting percentage (57.6 percent), and in player efficiency rating (21.32). His tendency to get to the free-throw line is what thrust him into the elite threshold of scoring in the league, as he made at least 10 free throws in eight of his 64 appearances. This is after he did so a total of only seven times during his first three seasons. And yet, somehow, he was not selected to an All-NBA team this season.
That was a mistake, and one that may not happen again in the future. Tatum is now Boston’s back-to-back MVP who's a clear-cut superstar in the league, and he’s only going to get better from here.