BOSTON — In a playoff game opposite Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — three of the six greatest scorers of their generation — Jayson Tatum was the most lethal offensive weapon on the court.
Tatum belongs to the next generation, and he is making a case to be the best scorer of his.
Harden scored 41 points and Durant 39 for the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 of their first-round matchup, but Tatum bested them both with a playoff career-high 50 for the Boston Celtics in a 125-119 win that made a series out of one that seemed destined for a sweep. It felt like he would need to score that much to give his team any chance, and now we are left to wonder just how many more times he will — for years to come.
Friday's 50 points marked the fourth time in 22 games he has hit the half-century mark, dating back to his 53-point outburst in a regular-season game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 9. Three weeks later, Tatum dropped 60 against the San Antonio Spurs, matching Larry Bird's 36-year-old Celtics record.
Tatum turned 23 in March.
"He's so advanced for 23 years old," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Tatum's 50 points, seven assists and six rebounds. "I've said the word special. I don't say that very often, obviously. He just has a unique ability to score the ball, to slither through seams, to find angles to score, but then also he's got the vision to make every right read. He was super tonight, but he's been like that a lot this year. He's special."
Most impressive are his two most recent 50-point outings. He scored exactly that in Boston's play-in victory against the Washington Wizards and did it again on Friday night. Two must-win postseason home games. Two 50s. This is no longer an anomaly. This is becoming a regular occurrence, and it is stunning.
"It was just one of those nights," Tatum said after Game 3. "Tough shooting night the first game [against Brooklyn], and obviously I didn't get to play that much last game because I got poked in my eye. I'm trying to protect home-court, trying to get a win at all costs, and sometimes on nights like these I need it."
Tatum dismantled Brooklyn's defense. You cannot design a better defensive option against Tatum than Durant's wiry 7-foot-5 wingspan, and Tatum picked his predecessor apart in the early going of Game 3. He pulled up over Durant for his first bucket. He turned a block of Durant into a transition layup for his second basket. And he drove right at Durant for his third. Tatum did to Durant what Durant has done to so many.
"He hit some tough ones over us tonight," Durant said afterward. "I don't think he got anything easy, but for a scorer like that, once you start to see the ball go into the rim, it pushes your team to another level."
Tatum sure made nothing easy look easy. He hunted matchups with Irving, Blake Griffin and Nicolas Claxton, and punished them all, altering between stepping back, fading away and attacking the basket. He made one 3-pointer from an angle in the corner that seemed damn near impossible with Claxton squeezing him. It was a clinic. Drew Hanlen, Tatum's private trainer, may as well just show prospective clients this film.
Kobe Bryant's January 2006 and Harden's January 2019 are considered the benchmarks for scoring streaks since Michael Jordan's retirement. Both averaged better than 43 points per game on those runs, which each included three 50-point games. They were 27 and 29 years old at the time, respectively.
Tatum has now hit 50 three times in the past month, two of them high-pressure postseason games. His average in that span does not approach 40, mainly because of a pair of nine-point stinkers — including one in Game 2 of this series. Consistency is all that is standing in his way and what ultimately makes Boston's odds so long. If Jaylen Brown were healthy for the Celtics, this series would be a lot more interesting.
But Boston can take solace in knowing Tatum is already capable of scoring with the greats and has room to improve. You can tell when he is on one, because he barrels to the rim with aggression, tucks the ball under his right arm through traffic and draws contact from players fearful he might get something easy. Tatum has taken 15 or more free throws on four occasions this season and has scored 50 in each of them. He is averaging 40 points when he gets to the line at least 10 times. Tatum needs to make that a nightly mission.
He averaged 26.4 points per game during the regular season and got to the line an average of just 5.3 times. Thirty points a night feels almost inevitable once he starts bringing the aggression on a regular basis.
Tatum's 50 points on Friday pushed his career playoff scoring total over 1,000 points, and that excludes the 50 he had in the play-in game. Only four players in NBA history have reached that milestone before turning 24: Bryant, Durant, LeBron James and Tony Parker. It took 61 games for Parker to get there, 57 for Bryant and 37 apiece for Durant and James. Tatum just played his 48th career playoff game. This is his company.
It will be a wonder if Tatum does not win a scoring title in the next few years. The over/under on scoring titles in his career has to be at least 1.5 at this point, and the smart bet is on the over. He is that good, and he will have to be again in Game 4 on Sunday if the Celtics have any chance of evening this series.
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