NEW YORK — After conquering the Nets on Monday, Jason Tatum stood in a hallway outside the visitors’ locker room at Barclays Center, his jersey in his hands and a wide smile on his face.
Just three months ago, during one of the season’s most trying junctures, Tatum had expressed the difficulty of achieving such moments. He hadn’t always understood how much went into winning, but Boston’s early-season struggles thumped him with the truth: In the NBA, nobody is promised good times. After the Celtics blew a big lead against the Knicks in January, the experience forced him to reflect on better days. He wanted to contend again. He wanted to guide the Celtics to more long playoff runs. But this time, he would be different. This time, he would be hardened by failure.
Maybe Tatum needed those introspective moments, those times of wondering what else he needed to do. Hardly anybody reaches heights as he did in the first round. He swept the potent Nets. He commanded the court against legend Kevin Durant. Tatum left behind a two-way performance that forced a re-examination of his place in the NBA hierarchy. Wherever he ranks among the top stars, he has at least stepped onto their hallowed ground. Since that January low, when the Celtics looked destined to end their season with scraped knees and a nearby puddle of blood, Tatum and his team have risen from their early-season bike crash.
Per family friend and longtime NBA sniper Jason Terry, Tatum is now ready to handle it all.
“I think for him, right now, he believes it,” Terry said before leaving Barclays Center. “That self-belief is what you’re starting to see out here. He really believes he’s top five in the league. And he’s shown it.”
Against one of the best players of this generation, Tatum owned the series on both ends of the court. He won Game 1 with a buzzer-beating layup. He led the Celtics back from 17 points down in Game 2, then controlled possession after possession in Games 3 and 4. He averaged 29.5 points, 7.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game while holding Durant well below his usual production and efficiency. Tatum even blocked two Durant jump shots, which nobody does, and missed a third by about an inch.
This was the series of Tatum’s life, another sign of his evolution. He reached the Eastern Conference finals during his first and third seasons but has never been armed with this many ways to win.
Terry has known Tatum since he was a skinny kid with big dreams. He believed Tatum was destined for the NBA the first time he saw him play but has seen the 24-year-old develop throughout his career. From a front-row seat, he watched Tatum finish off the Nets in Game 4 with 29 points, five assists and three rebounds.
“What stood out to me was just his mentality,” Terry said. “It didn’t matter if it was KD or Kyrie (Irving) or whoever. He understood how the defense was guarding him, and he took advantage of it. Then he understood what Kevin’s strengths and weaknesses were, and when he was guarding him, he played to those strengths and weaknesses. I think that’s just being a student of the game. His growth and maturity shows.”
No matter what Brooklyn tried in Game 4, Tatum read the defense and dissected it. He shot over the top of smaller defenders while the Celtics built a first-half lead. He limited a second-quarter Nets run by handing out several assists, including three that led to Grant Williams’ 3-pointers. Once criticized for his inability to draw contact, Tatum averaged 9.5 free-throw attempts per game during the series. Once chastised for his lack of playmaking chops, he cut down the Nets with his court vision during stretches of each game.
Terry believes Tatum started to turn the corner when he worked out with Kobe Bryant years ago — “the conversations, the workouts, that type of training, you can’t pay for that,” Terry said — but developed in other ways this season.
“You get to a point in your career where you realize, like, OK, they’re counting on me for more than just scoring points,” Terry said. His leadership. His ability to defend. His ability to get everybody else involved and make his teammates better. Him taking on that type of role is what they envisioned for him, and he’s been real receptive to it. The kid’s a hard worker. He’s a smart kid. But he wants it, too.”
Tatum wants it all. He couldn’t wait for the Durant matchup this series. When other teams angled to duck the nets Near the end of the regular season, Tatum preferred to meet them head-on. He figured the Celtics would need to beat the best anyway, so they might as well do it right away. Despite the quick series, Tatum believed the Nets forced Boston to play at a high level. He thought the Celtics locked in even more because they knew what Durant and Irving could do.
Tatum was no stranger to MVP-caliber competition. He ran into LeBron James during the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo the following year and Durant and James Harden last season. Though Tatum played well in most of those series, he couldn’t touch the other stars’ level. He hadn’t yet flown into their stratosphere, but he did hang 50 points on the Nets during Game 3 last season, then won a gold medal with Durant on Team USA this summer. Durant led the team at the Olympics, Draymond Green said on a recent episode of his podcast, but players viewed Tatum like he had next.
Maybe Tatum has now. Marcus Smart said Tatum “attacked” his matchup with Durant.
“He didn’t wait for anything,” Smart said. “He went in, and he took it.”
“I’m a completely different player than I was at 20 in my first playoffs,” explained Tatum. “I’m a different player than I was last year. We’ve got a different team. We know who was on the other team. Obviously, I have the utmost respect for KD and what he’s brought to the game and accomplished. Somebody like that, he brought the best out of me. I knew I had to be on the top of my game in this series. But in the same breath, I was not surprised by how I played. I do feel like I’m one of the best players. That’s how I approach the game when I step on the floor, regardless of who’s on the other team.”
Only the officiating crew kept Tatum from being the best player on the court. When he picked up his sixth foul late in Game 4, it marked the first time he had fouled out of a game since Feb. 9, 2019. From the sideline, he clapped his hands with as much sarcasm as he could muster, letting the referees know how he felt about their performance.
Though he clearly disagreed with several whistles against him, including his final foul, Tatum didn’t stay disappointed forever. Minutes after the display of disapproval, he held his arms up in a victory sign, hopped up and down on the court and nodded his head to the Barclays Center music. He would have preferred to wrap up the series on the court, but the Celtics will move on anyway.
Assuming the Bucks finish off the Bulls, Tatum and the Celtics will see Antetokounmpo next. The defending-champion Bucks are hurting with Khris Middleton recovering from a sprained MCL but will bring championship guts and top-shelf talent to the matchup. The Celtics will need to be sharp again. They won’t find as many defensive weak links to target as they did in the first round. That means Tatum’s job will grow more challenging, at least on one end of the court.
Terry believes Tatum will be prepared. As a key member of the 2011 champion Mavericks, Terry knows what raising a banner requires. He sees the Celtics rolling at the right time.
“If they can stay where they’re at mentally, physically and spiritually, then they’ll have some success in that series, as well,” Terry said. “They’re playing the best. The thing about the NBA playoffs is it’s just like college basketball: If you can get hot at the right time — if your defense is hitting, if your offense, rotations, chemistry… all that is clicking right now for them. They’re in a good place. So, they just have to stay in that place.”
These are the good times Tatum wanted to feel again. He is readier than ever to keep them coming. Bring on Antetokounmpo, bring on anyone else, and Tatum will still believe in himself.
(Top photo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)