Jayson Tatum saved an otherwise ugly start to the NBA's play-in tournament experiment.
The 23-year-old Boston Celtics forward staked his claim to superstardom in Tuesday's nightcap, scoring 50 points in a 118-100 win to send the Washington Wizards to an elimination game against the Indiana Pacers on Thursday. Tatum made fellow All-Stars Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook look like the junior varsity.
"Be the best player on the floor. That's what I told myself coming into this game," Tatum told TNT's national broadcast after his third 50-point game in 39 days set a high bar for the play-in record. "Do whatever it takes to win and be the best player on the floor. I felt like, if I did that, we'd have a good chance to win."
The Celtics advanced as a seventh seed to face Kevin Durant, James Harden and old friend Kyrie Irving's second-seeded Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Game 1 is Saturday.
Tatum scored 23 of his 50 in the third quarter, punishing the Wizards at every level. Step-back 3's. Stop-and-pop 15-footers. Finger-roll layups. You name the move, Tatum had it in his bag, and Washington had no answer. A 17-2 run to open the second half was all the Celtics needed to put the Wizards to sleep.
And Tatum was the only reason for anyone to stay up.
The night began with an elimination game between two depleted sub-.500 teams battling for the right to (probably) lose to the Wizards on Thursday. The ninth-place Indiana Pacers, playing without starters Caris LeVert (COVID-19 health and safety protocols) and Myles Turner (turf toe), led by as many as 39 points in a blowout of a 10th-place Charlotte Hornets team that was without its best player, Gordon Hayward (foot).
The entire second half was garbage time. The final minutes pitted the immortal Amidah Brimah against Hornets legend Nate Darling. The two had combined for 55 minutes all season. It was painful to watch.
If opening night of the play-in tournament is an indication of what's to come in the playoffs, the NBA is in for some trouble. The league better hope these teams are lambs to the slaughter once the real games begin, because it looked like the walking wounded out there. Who could blame them after a condensed regular season started two months from the end of last year's Finals — earlier than anyone anticipated.
"We've been through a lot," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, "so we're hardened in a lot of ways. We've been backs-against-the-wall most of the year, and to have to play tonight to get into the playoffs, just to earn the right to play probably the most talented team that's been assembled since I've been in the NBA, it takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of togetherness, and it takes staying together through tougher times."
Few teams have avoided the toll taken by this arduous season. It was in plain view on Tuesday.
COVID-19 claimed LeVert as the first protocol absence of what is sure to be more in the weeks to come. Soft tissue injuries sidelined starters Hayward, Turner and Boston's Jaylen Brown. Charlotte's Rookie of the Year favorite, LaMelo Ball, nursed his injured right wrist during pregame warmups. He was a -35 and shot 4 for 14 from the field. Beal was seen stretching his strained left hamstring on the sidelines during a subpar performance. Celtics starters Marcus Smart and Robert Williams both limped off the court in the second quarter. Smart returned in diminished capacity. Williams started the second half, only to exit a minute later.
After the Celtics laid waste to the Wizards, TNT play-by-play announcer Marv Albert openly wondered whether Westbrook was feeling well, because the former MVP shot 6-for-18 from the field and committed four turnovers. He looked exhausted from chasing the triple-double record, and he never looks exhausted.
The Pacers made 16 of their 35 (45.7%) 3-point attempts. The other three teams combined to shoot 30 for 106 (28.3%) from deep. The Celtics' 39.6 field-goal percentage was their worst in a victory all season, and they won by 18. The Wizards committed 31 fouls. Their entire frontcourt rotation was in trouble by halftime. These are signs of tired teams. The Hornets played like their reservations for Cancun expired at midnight.
Maybe hosting a play-in tournament in this season of all seasons wasn't such a great idea, after all. Thank goodness for Tatum, at least, and here's hoping Lakers-Warriors on Wednesday is a lot more entertaining.
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