SALT LAKE CITY — As the curtain closed on yet another NBA All-Star Weekend, the best way to describe it was … dominance. From Damian Lillard in the Starry 3-Point Contest, and Mac McClung dripping with near perfection in the AT&T Slam Dunk, the finishing touch was provided just as emphatically in the 2023 All-Star Game by a player who could not be stopped.
By anyone. Even his Celtic teammate.
That’s the kind of quality night it was for Jayson Tatum, who dropped jumpers at a record rate — finishing with 55 points, three better than the previous All-Star mark by Anthony Davis — and garnished it all with a splashy and playful showdown against Jaylen Brown that won the crowd at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City. It was enough to easily win the NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant Most Valuable Player award, which made Tatum emotional; Bryant was a massive presence in his life and development as a player.
“Just special,” Tatum said.
And so it was a performance that was juiced by a pair of friendships for Tatum — one of them a former mentor, the other a current teammate. Joined at the hip ever since both were drafted by Boston, yet separated at the All-Star Draft by team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two Celtics stars found themselves in a third-quarter stare-down and, after being encouraged by the crowd and their teammates, took turns going one-on-one.
“That was normal for us,” said Tatum, citing their time training together at hundreds of practices. “Another day at the office.”
Let’s just be diplomatic and say the Celtics got the best of that duel, and it highlighted the victory by Team Giannis in a 184-175, Tatum-fueled result over Team LeBron.
So here’s how Celtic vs. Celtic went, essentially: With the game lapsing into a blur of uncontested dunks and shots, as is typical with All-Star Games, the contest needed a wakeup late in the third quarter. And it came in a rush, when Tatum challenged Brown and their square-off turned into a welcome subplot.
At first, though, before it turned wonderful, it was blunderful, with Tatum dribbling off his leg out of bounds. That was a letdown, but temporary: Brown hit a 3-pointer over Tatum and then did the “too small” gesture. It was on.
Players from both teams shouted encouragement, cleared out and let it happen. Tatum returned with a 3-pointer against Brown before the third-quarter buzzer interfered and called truce.
“We’ve had countless 1-on-1 games in practice, us going against each other, pushing each other, making each other better,” Tatum said. “We’ve always brought out the best in each other.”
In the larger picture, Tatum did a number on others, too: He scored 27 in that entertaining third quarter; he shot 22-for-31; he prevented Team LeBron from making it suspenseful.
It also helped that Donovan Mitchell provided 40 points for Team Giannis and, until that third quarter, made the chase for the MVP trophy an interesting one. Mitchell had a portion of the crowd support after spending his first five NBA seasons with the Jazz, who drafted him No. 13 in 2017.
Brown led Team LeBron in scoring with 35 points, and he did so as a reserve, making it a complete night for the Celtics. Only Lillard, who swished a shot effortlessly from halfcourt, was able to break the Celtic stranglehold on entertainment.
But this was about Tatum, and especially his link to Kobe.
Kobe was a mentor to Tatum almost from the start. Tatum forged a friendship, the two trained together during Tatum’s first few years and the growth of the Celtics’ star was gradual from there.
Tatum, to this day, still honors Kobe, who died tragically three years ago. Tatum broke down when he heard the news about the helicopter crash, obviously affected by the shock, as were so many young players in the NBA who admired and befriended Kobe.
In what’s shaping up as an MVP-contention season for Tatum, he drops Kobe’s name often, and often wears a purple armband in his honor. Vanessa Bryant sat at courtside Sunday and watched her late husband’s prized pupil earn the trophy in record fashion.
“It means the world to me,” Tatum said, about seizing the trophy. “I mean, he meant so much to me.”
Tatum’s first of four All-Star appearances was in 2020, a month after Kobe’s death. The MVP trophy was named after Kobe, and Tatum recalled telling himself: “I’m going to get one of those one day before I’m done.”
One problem, though: Tatum didn’t exactly sparkle in All-Star competition. In two of his previous three stints, he scored in single digits, hard to pull off in these games. He had 35 points total in those three games — 20 fewer than he scored Sunday.
Speaking of scoring records: Tatum became the first player to hit 50 in a regular season, playoff and All-Star Game. And only Steph Curry made more 3s than Tatum’s 10.
The next task for Tatum is a championship; he and the Celtics faltered last summer after assuming an early series lead against the Warriors. Tatum vowed to return a better and more efficient player, which he has, averaging 30.6 points on 46% shooting, along with 8.6 rebounds, and the Celtics are leading the East by a half-game over Giannis and the Bucks at the break.
“I’m extremely blessed to be in this situation,” Tatum said. “I try not to think about all the things I’ve accomplished. I never want to get complacent. I’m always chasing something, chasing more.”
For the first time in All-Star Game history, the process of player selection was held on the same day, before tipoff. It was up to the captains, LeBron and Giannis, to choose sides, playground-style, starting with the reserves who were chosen by NBA coaches, then starters who were voted on by fans, players and media. Both LeBron and Giannis seemed prepared — LeBron had a cheat sheet, Giannis a cheat book — and it was on.
Giannis was so excited he picked Ja before Ja was eligible to be picked 🤣#NBAAllStarDraft presented by Jordan Brand
📺: Live on TNT pic.twitter.com/XeyXECAtCb
— NBA (@NBA) February 20, 2023
Well, sort of: Giannis flubbed his role when he mistakenly chose Ja Morant during the reserves selection. No matter: Giannis took Morant during the starters’ selections.
For the record, Jaren Jackson Jr. was the final reserve selected, and Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen, the last starter. Still, Markkanen, a first-time All-Star, received perhaps the loudest applause inside the hometown arena.
Giannis’ biggest decision was drafting Tatum. Giannis said: “I knew he was going to play hard and take it serious, so it was a no-brainer.”
The other selection drama? LeBron took Kyrie, his running mate with the 2016 champion Cavs. Curiously, Kyrie chose to leave LeBron and the Cavs after that title; he’s now on his third team since then — and is a free agent this summer, thus tossing a log on the speculative fire about a possible reunion with LeBron in L.A.
Giannis’ status seemed shaky after injuring his right wrist right before the break, but he dismissed any thought of sitting, saying: “Whatever I have, that’s what I’m going to give. I’m never going to change.” But loyalty to the game has limits when injured. Giannis was no fool; he played 20 seconds and took one shot, spending more time on the court watching singers Burna Boy and Tems at halftime.
Just as well: LeBron suffered a minor hand injury in the first half after hitting it on the rim and was a second-half scratch.
“I tried to get one little chase-down block, and got my finger caught in the rim,” he said. “But I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I don’t think it’s too much to worry about.”
It was LeBron’s 19th All-Star appearance, setting a record for most in a career, and he was honored for establishing the career scoring record in a ceremony with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone.
But LeBron also suffered another sort of setback: For the first time in six years as an All-Star team captain, he lost. To the Celtics, at that.
Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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