2021 State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament
Jayson Tatum drops 50 on Wizards as Celtics secure No. 7 seed
Leading by example, Jayson Tatum dominated Washington in a 118-110 win that gave Boston the East's No. 7 seed.
Climb on my backs, fellas. If Jayson Tatum didn’t actually say that, he certainly played like it.
Echoing great clutch scorers of the Boston Celtics’ past such as Larry Bird and Paul Pierce, Tatum added another chapter to his own young career Tuesday night by scoring 50 points to beat the Washington Wizards 118-100 at TD Garden.
Tatum scored 32 of those points in the second half, combining with guard Kemba Walker’s 17 to outscore the Wizards 49-46 by themselves over those last two quarters. Tatum and Walker scored all but 17 of Boston’s 66 points in the half, getting the Celtics in and out as quickly as possible from the Eastern Conference side of the inaugural State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament.
“This is big, obviously. This is a unique situation,” Tatum said immediately after.
His approach? “Be the best player on the floor. That’s what I told myself coming into the game,” the 23-year-old wing from St. Louis said. “Do whatever it takes to win and be the best player on the floor. I felt if I did that, we’d have a good chance to win.”
By winning, the Celtics claimed the No. 7 seed in the East and a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, with Game 1 Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC). The Wizards get another chance at their conference’s playoff bracket when they face the Indiana Pacers Thursday (8 p.m. ET, TNT), the winners nailing down the No. 8 spot and a best-of-seven series with the No. 1-seeded Philadelphia 76ers that starts Sunday.
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Indiana eliminated Charlotte in the night’s early game, with the inexperienced Hornets thoroughly overwhelmed in falling 144-117.
“They played like they wanted to be in the playoffs and we didn’t,” Charlotte forward Miles Bridges said.
The Hornets had the most to gain of the four teams, getting to the play-in tournament from the No. 10 spot despite their 0-5 slide to end the regular season. The Celtics had the most to lose, grinding and gasping all season to finish a disappointing — though traditionally safe — seventh, only to have their postseason fate still up for grabs in the span potentially of two games over three nights.
It was bad enough that Boston last week lost Jaylen Brown, Tatum’s fellow All-Star wing, to a torn left wrist ligament that required season-ending surgery. It had its own Charlotte-like slide, too, dropping five of its final six games.
But Tatum picked up Brown’s absent scoring — the two averaged 51.1 points during the season — a month after he posted games of 60 and 53 points. This time, he got 23 in the third quarter, when the Celtics saw and raised Washington’s 21-7 run in the second with a 22-4 stretch of their own. That cracked open the game for the Celtics, who advanced to the playoffs for the seventh consecutive time in coach Brad Stevens’ eight seasons.
“You could tell he was anxious to have a good night,” Stevens said. “It was really important to our guys to play well. It has not always been roses. They’ve had to answer a bunch of stuff. It’s been hard missing people all year. Our guys have just stayed with it.”
Said Walker, who finished with 29 points: “[Jayson] was unbelievable. It ain’t new to me, from watching this guy put in this kind of work over the last year or two. It’s exciting to see him go off. We’re going to need that this whole run.”
Tatum and Walker, with 79 points, came close to doubling up what Wizards stars Bradley Beal (22) and Russell Westbrook (20) posted. Westbrook shot 6-of-18 while Beal, a friendly St. Louis rival of Tatum, needed 25 field-goal attempts, making 10.
There were times when Beal got isolated covering Tatum and it wasn’t pretty. If the Washington guard’s strained hamstring wasn’t limiting enough in that matchup, his height disadvantage was.
“It’s tough when you guard him. I mean, he’s 6-9. He can get his shot off,” Beal said. “I know his moves. A lot of them, I was there. But I’m only 6-3.”
For the Celtics, in this particular week of need, Tatum’s ascendance against the Wizards was part of his growing responsibility for where they go and how they get there. He was asked about his personal style of leading earlier in the day.
“Everybody is different, right?” Tatum said. “I’m sure the people who watch the games and give their opinion on what happens kind of want you to be a certain way and think that if you’re yelling and screaming and stuff like that, that necessarily makes you a leader. It works for some guys. I’m certain that we can name plenty of other guys that were special and led their team in a quieter way, just because of their demeanor.
“How you play, how you show up every day, pulling guys to the side, everyone wants to see that. But leadership comes in all different types of fashions and I just do it my own way.”
Tatum did it in a way that spoke loudly Tuesday.
Pacers good, Hornets goodbye
The elixir of the Play-In Tournament, offering a revival to one of two lottery-bound teams, worked wonders for Indiana for a night.
The Pacers had dropped seven of their final 12 games and were beset with injuries heading into their clash with Charlotte. Myles Turner, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb had been out for a while, Malcolm Brogdon had missed the past 10 games and then Caris LeVert got ensnared in the league’s health and safety pandemic protocols.
Didn’t matter. Indiana crushed the Hornets, grabbing a 40-24 lead in the first quarter and never feeling any threat from there. All-Star Domantas Sabonis had 14 points, 21 rebounds and nine assists. April addition Oshae Brissett scored 23 points. Doug McDermott had 16 of his 21 in that first quarter. And Brogdon played after all, chipping in 16 points and nine assists in 21 minutes.
The Pacers hit 16 3-pointers while scoring 74 points in the paint, shooting 55 percent against only feeble resistance.
The Hornets’ late-season swoon — triggered largely by former All-Star Gordon Hayward’s April 2 foot injury — and lack of playoff experience didn’t quite prepare anyone for their poor showing in this one. Their sole consolation was that Play-In status didn’t strip them of their lottery standing. They’ll go back in the hopper with the other hopefuls vying for Draft position.
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