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For the inaugural presentation of the Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP award, it was only right to be given to a Celtic Legend in the making.
Jayson Tatum brought his Celtics on the road Sunday night for a do-or-die Game 7 matchup in Miami, and with 26 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal, helped to berth them into the NBA Finals with a 100-96 win.
The Celtics took home their ECF trophy since 2010, and their 24-year-old superstar got to take home some extra hardware for his remarkable efforts after averaging 25.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists throughout the seven-game series.
“It's an honor,” Tatum said after the game while sitting at a podium with his new trophy by his side. “It still doesn't even seem real right now. I'm just extremely happy and grateful for all of this. Regardless of how long I've been in the league, I'm not too far removed from when I was in high school and when I was dreaming about moments like this.
“I still feel like a kid at some times that I'm truly living out my dream. I thank God every day just to be in this position to be able to do that. To be the first person to win this award, obviously (named) after Larry Bird, it still hasn't sunk in yet.”
Tatum may still feel like a kid, but he sure hasn't been playing like one. Throughout Boston's playoff run, he's been calm, clutch, and reliable whenever the Celtics have needed him to step up, just like he did Sunday night.
Friday night’s Game 6 loss could have been a breaking point for Boston, but Tatum did what he has done all throughout the postseason by leading them to a bounce-back win. Boston is now 6-0 in games following a loss in these playoffs, and in those half-dozen wins, Tatum has averaged 31.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game.
He's also knocked off a bona fide superstar in each series, eliminating Kevin Durant in Round 1, Giannis Antetokounmpo in Round 2, and Jimmy Butler in Round 3.
Tatum’s seven-game showdown with Butler was as evenly matched as could be, as Butler averaged 25.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game, which nearly equaled Tatum’s aforementioned series stats.
Butler was incredible in his own right, totaling 80 points in the final two games of the series despite dealing with knee soreness. But he gave credit where credit was due to his counterpart after Tatum got the better of him in the series-deciding game.
“He's a superstar, and he deserved that,” Butler said of Tatum’s first Finals berth. “They deserve the win. I wish them the best moving forward. He's one hell of a player, that's for damn sure.
Tatum’s ability to battle through adversity in the ECF reflected upon his full-season effort of helping the Celtics bounce back from a rough start. He never gave up on them after trailing at two different points in the series, just like he never gave up when they were struggling to get above .500 midway through the season.
“He’s a guy that's carried us throughout the season,” said head coach Ime Udoka. “He asked a lot to be put on his shoulders and has delivered. You look at the numbers: a 26-point night, and that's standard for him. That's an average night for him. He's averaged 27 this year, First Team All-NBA. So he knows a lot is relied upon him.
“Jayson, he's the head of the snake. Well-deserved all the accolades he's getting and he's only 24 and not even touched his ceiling, not even close to that. Look for bigger and better things, and obviously he's going to do the same in the championship series.”
As happy as Tatum was after finally getting over the hump and winning an Eastern Conference title, the upcoming championship series against the Golden State Warriors is the one that obviously matters the most to him.
“I think it's alright to be proud of ourselves today and enjoy this,” Tatum said. “We're not satisfied. We know we've still got a long way to go.”
As thrilled as he was to earn the inaugural Bird trophy, Tatum's mind is on another piece of "Larry" hardware.
Up next: the Larry O'Brien trophy.