The rise of Jayson Tatum

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When the NBA playoffs began, not many people gave the Boston Celtics much of a chance. They were being overlooked, mostly as a result of the various players who were missing from the lineup. Gordon Hayward going down on opening night (against Cleveland) is old news, but remained in the minds of most basketball analysts as an insurmountable challenge. Nobody thought they could overcome the absence of such a high caliber player.

Then, as the end of the regular season approached, news of Kyrie Irving needing season-ending surgery further placed doubts among the public regarding the chances the Celtics have to advance from the first round. Despite technically being the No.2 seed, they were facing an uphill battle against the Milwaukee Bucks and their own rising star in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Able to persevere, the Celtics only grew stronger as a unit, improving with each game, on their way to their current Eastern Conference matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

At the onset of the postseason, Tatum was severely underrated. He was forced to hear chirps about the greatness of two other rookies. Granted, Ben Simmons’s season-long performance made his praise justified. He was able to ignite the 76ers team, spearheading the turnaround of “the process” that had been long anticipated across the league.

Then, the progression of these playoffs saw another rookie take great strides in his game. Donovan Mitchell put the Utah Jazz on his back, leading them past the seemingly top loaded Thunder in the first round. All of a sudden, there were discussions about who is the best rookie of the TWO. Nobody was talking about Tatum. As if he was by far the third-best player of the group, undeserving of any praise of comparisons to the “superior” rookies in his class.

This is not to take away from what either Simmons or Mitchell have been able to achieve this year. But Tatum has stepped up his game to a level that appears to have surpassed his counterparts. Competition intensifies deeper into the postseason, as each game becomes more meaningful. Every game gets you closer to that elusive championship. But the Celtics continue to shock the sports world. They don’t care what anyone thinks about them. They could care less about what we think they should or can achieve, relative to the other teams in the field. They just take care of business.

At first, Scary Terry was making headlines for his out of nowhere performances. Nobody expected him to play the way he has in recent weeks. But the true key to the current Celtics run is Jayson Tatum. He has pretty much done it all. He hasn’t backed down from any challenge. He has provided the superstar factor that each team needs to reach this point in the postseason. The reason it’s so important to have that one guy (or more), is because it’s crucial to have a player who can create his own shots at will (and make them). Such a skill provides hope that no matter what the opposing defense does, there is always a way to overcome them. Tatum has shown he can make contested shots from any range. He can create space off the dribble. Attack the basket at any time. And if teams decide to send additional defenders his way, there will be a mismatch or open player somewhere on the court.

Tatum has been on a tear. He has been highly impressive with his scoring opportunities. But it’s more than that. He seems to comprehend the importance of these moments. The greatness of this stage. The whole world is watching, and he just keeps improving. At just 20 years old, he has stood face-to-face with some of the greatest basketball players in the world and won. Nothing seems to faze him.

Like some of the game’s greats, Tatum appears to elevate his play at critical times. It seems as if he was in cruise control for the regular season, saving his true abilities for this pivotal time of year. In the second round series against Simmons and the 76ers, Tatum averaged 23.6 points per game. He provided the spark this team needed. A spark that let them to believe anything is possible. Even taking down the greatest player of our generation in LeBron James.

As the Eastern Conference finals began, not many people thought the Celtics had much of a chance against the Cavs, who demolished the number one seed Toronto Raptors in the second round. But Boston is aware of the magnitude of the task at hand. LeBron has dominated the playoffs in the East, having made seven NBA finals appearances in a row. He is doing everything in his power to make it there again this year, knowing that the results of this postseason could dictate his decision whenever his offseason begins.

It remains to be seen just how far the Celtics can go this season. Obviously, it’s not just Tatum that is helping their cause. A healthy Jaylen Brown has been contributing heavily as well since his return to the lineup. While Rozier has slowed somewhat since his early playoffs tear, Al Horford has been a dominant presence on the inside. Boston’s future is suddenly as bright as any team in the East. Maybe even in the entire league. No matter what happens the rest of this season, next year they will get back their two biggest stars (although Tatum could dispute that) in Irving and Hayward. If all goes as planned, they will be a force to be reckoned with.