Tomase: Jayson Tatum and the birth of a superstar who has Celtics on brink of Finals

John Tomase
May 24, 2018 - 10:42 am
Jayson Tatum

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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Jayson Tatum caught the ball with about four seconds on the shot clock and poured himself an iced tea.

Panic? Not this rookie. He shook J.R. Smith to draw a mismatch with Tristan Thompson on the left wing before going between his legs and stepping back to drill an 18-footer as the 24-second buzzer sounded.

The basket, which gave the Celtics a 15-point lead in Wednesday's Game 5 win over the Cavaliers, encapsulated everything remarkable about the 20-year-old as he navigates his first postseason as a primary scoring option.

"He's got game," said teammate Marcus Morris. "He's special. That's about it. You can see special talent over and over and over. He carries himself like a veteran. He's special."

Tatum led the Celtics with 24 points in Wednesday's victory, which left the C's just one win from a return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. He nailed three 3-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds, and got it done on the defensive end, too, with four steals and two blocks.

It's enough to make one ask the question: what the hell happened to the rookie wall and why didn't Tatum ever hit it?

"I don't even believe that exists," said teammate Jaylen Brown. "I just think that's another barrier that society in the basketball world puts in place for you to slow down. 'Everybody hits the rookie wall.' Everybody doesn't hit a rookie wall. I don't think Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell hit one. I don't think Jayson Tatum did. Coming into the league thinking you're going to hit one, kind of putting that stifling on yourself, and you limit yourself. But JT, there ain't no limit for that."

Tatum's postseason exploits have left him climbing some star-studded lists. He has now scored 312 points in the playoffs, fourth most for a rookie ever. On Wednesday, he passed Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain, and he needs only 40 points to catch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who totaled 352 points (in only 10 games) as Lew Alcindor for the 1970 Bucks.

"I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games," Tatum said. "I think that's when I have the most fun, when things are on the line. A lot of guys stepped up tonight. I can't say it enough: We're one win away from going to The Finals, especially after everything we've been through."

Tatum delivered a series of plays that head coach Brad Stevens would probably consider highlight reel. He beat LeBron James to a loose ball and then beat him to the rim for a layup without fear. He fronted James in the high post with force and stole a pass to start a fast break. He went around-the-back to take George Hill to the elbow, and then drilled a manly fallaway with a feathery touch.

Players in their age-19 seasons aren't supposed to do any of the above, but Tatum deleted that memo unopened.

"I think that we misuse the word development sometimes," Stevens said. "think we're in the business of enhancement. I think Jayson was ready to deal with everything that comes with this because of who he is and his family and all his coaches before, because he's a very emotionally steady, smart player that was going to perform at a high level above his age. I don't know that anybody could guess this as a rookie, but you knew he was going to be really good."

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