Tomase: Jayson Tatum outplays Ben Simmons and Celtics fans make sure both rookies hear it

John Tomase
May 01, 2018 - 12:26 am
Jayson Tatum

Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

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Ben Simmons stepped to the free throw line and Celtics fans let him have it with a chant that made Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell post a bunch of laughing emojis from 3,000 miles away.

"Not a rookie!"

Moments later, Jayson Tatum measured the first of three free throws and the home fans delivered a message for him, too.

"He's a rookie!"

It was meant as a dig at Simmons, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft who broke his foot and didn't debut until this season. Without him, Mitchell and Tatum would be the runaway favorites to take home the Rookie of the Year hardware that is almost certainly bound for Simmons' mantle.

But the chant served another purpose, if read in a properly incredulous tone.

"He's a rookie?!?!"

In another time, Tatum would be preparing for final exams as a Duke sophomore. On Monday, he dominated the hottest team in the NBA on the league's biggest stage.

Twenty-year-old rookies aren't supposed to have the kind of night Tatum delivered in a 117-101 demolition of the 76ers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Tatum exploded for a playoff career-high 28 points and he did it in manly fashion by bulling his way to the basket and constantly exploiting mismatches with pretty much anyone who tried to guard him, but particularly overmatched guard J.J. Redick. Tatum made 8-of-16 shots from the floor and did most of his damage at the free throw line, where he went 11-for-12.

Tatum made a corner 3 and an elbow jumper and the rest of his baskets came in the paint, where rookie swingmen generally wilt. But Tatum is no ordinary rookie. The Paul Pierce comparisons look more apt by the day, with Tatum's ability to exploit angles and then explode evoking wisps of No. 34. The Sixers had no answer for him.

"Loved it," said teammate Marcus Smart. "We need more of that from him. He's going to need to play like that for the rest of his time, the rest of the series, for us to keep going the way we want."

The battle of Tatum vs. Simmons was striking. Philly's freakishly versatile point guard delivered 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but spent most of the night bottled up at the point of attack, the Celtics doggedly denying him the downhill dives that yield highlight-reel dunks.

Meanwhile, Tatum got whatever he wanted.

"I thought he was great," said Sixers coach Brett Brown. "I think he's had an exceptional year. He's got bounce. When I watch him, he plays sort of older than his resume suggests. He's got a lot of bounce and a lot of game. Tonight he scored in a variety of ways. I thought he was excellent."

Tatum was asked if he believes he's a better rookie than Simmons. He smiled and paused before softly replying, "No comment."

Smart tackled the question instead after watching Tatum join Larry Bird as the only rookies in team history to reach 28 points in a playoff game. Bird set the franchise record with 34 points against the Rockets in 1980.

"I mean, they're both great in their own ways," he said. "They're two different types of players. Jayson, the way he can score the ball, and Ben the way he facilitates and finds guys. It's hard to say who's better. They're better in their own way."

The matchup with Simmons wasn't the only juxtaposition worth considering. On the Sixers bench, rookie Markelle Fultz was a healthy scratch, offering another reminder that no one should trade with Celtics hoops boss Danny Ainge ever again. Ainge sent the No. 1 overall pick to the Sixers for No. 3 and two cracks at jumping back into the lottery.

He told us that the player he wanted at 1 would be there at 3, and Tatum has done nothing to make us question Ainge's judgment.

"I worked out with him during pre-draft, so I knew what kind of talent he had," said teammate and fellow rookie Semi Ojeleye. "Obviously the Celtics made a great choice. I'm happy to be his teammate."

Not half as happy as Celtics fans are to watch him. With key contributors falling on a seemingly nightly basis -- Jaylen Brown didn't play because of a sore hamstring and Smart tweaked his surgically repaired thumb but insists he's fine -- the Celtics are down to about three reliable scoring options.

Tatum is improbably one of them. Just imagine how good he's going to be when he's no longer a rookie.