On the ride over to TD Garden for Game 2 of the Celtics-Cavaliers series, Justin Tatum said his son, Jayson, turned to him and asked, “Dad, could you even imagine me in the Eastern Conference finals? Just three games away from the NBA Finals?”
Justin — whose most recent visit to Boston was his longest since the Celtics drafted Jayson with the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft — said he replied, “Please don’t talk about that right now. Let me live this moment.”
Since that conversation, Jayson has moved one step closer to reaching the NBA Finals. The Celtics and Cavs are knotted at two games apiece ahead of their critical Game 5 Wednesday evening. As Jayson noted after Game 4 Monday, “It’s best of three to go to the NBA Finals. It’s pretty exciting.”
Regardless of how Boston’s postseason pans out, Jayson’s rookie year has been undeniably impressive. The 20-year-old is averaging a team-high 18.0 points per game during the playoffs, up from his regular-season average of 13.9. He scored 20-plus points in seven straight games, breaking Larry Bird’s record for most consecutive 20-point playoff games by a Celtics rookie.
Jayson’s performances, along with his accelerated maturity and fearless attitude, have garnered praise from many, including members of the coaching staff, Paul Pierce, Tommy Heinsohn, and of course, his dad.
“He was in high school two years ago and now he’s playing in the Eastern Conference finals,” Justin told Boston.com. “For me to see he has a job he loves and to see his growth, it came all too fast. But when I see all the Tatum jerseys and everybody who enjoys seeing his craft, that’s just a good feeling there.”
Justin — who coaches basketball at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis — said dueling schedules made it challenging for him to attend Celtics games during the regular season, but he’s made the trip for several playoff games. While in the crowd, he tries to keep a low profile and let Jayson do his thing.
“I’m calm and collected, even when he’s dunking on somebody or when he hits a three,” Justin said. “I try to be discreet and just watch from the side, just to watch him be able to live his dream he always wanted to live. This is what he always wanted to do. There was no other plan. He was like, ‘I want to play basketball and that’s it.’ And I was like, ‘Well, this is what we got to do.'”
After endlessly prodding Jayson to work on his left hand throughout his early adolescence, Justin said his coaching has died down a bit. He’ll still text him little things he sees in his game, ranging from general observations to specific reasons why he thinks coach Brad Stevens might have taken him out of the game.
Two areas of improvement Justin has identified for Jayson are: 1. Bending his legs and utilizing his base more because he’s not as strong as some of his competitors. Jayson, as Justin put it, “likes to stand up all tall and pretty with his arms.” 2. Being stronger with the ball when attacking the basket because he sometimes seems to “get it smacked” or lose possession.
For the most part, however, Justin said he likes to tell his son to have fun, while reminding himself, “Brad’s got him. Brad’s got him.”
Even when he’s able to catch the game in person, Justin will still try to re-watch all four quarters at home.
“That’s where I get the kick of emotions from, to hear the commentators,” he said. “Because I’m so critical in watching every little thing that he does, when I get a chance to watch it, that’s when it kicks it. It’s a proud moment.”
Some other things he had to say about his son’s game:
- Justin knew in the third or fourth grade Jayson had the skill — and the drive — to play college ball, which is “all [he] cared about at first.” Once Jayson made the USA team at 15 years old, and continued to excel with other top players, Justin said he started to realize his son also had a potential future in the NBA.
- While Jayson was growing up, he was already trying to emulate one of his favorite players, Kobe Bryant, on the court. He wanted to integrate Bryant’s footwork into games when he was seven or eight years old. Justin advised he give it a try during practice before immediately incorporating it into games, but Jayson said, “If Kobe’s doing it, I can do it. I’ll work on it. I want to try to do it.”
- Jayson said he has yet to arrive late for anything.
- They don’t play one-on-one anymore.
- The overtime period of Game 3 against the Philadelphia 76ers was one of Justin’s proudest moments watching his son this season. Jayson finished with 24 points, including back-to-back buckets in the final 90 seconds to keep the Celtics within striking distance. Boston went on to win, 101-98. “Just the chance Brad took on him and the challenge he took to take and make those shots,” Justin said. “To help the team win that Game 3, that was a touching feeling for me because I’ve always seen that competitive edge in him. He didn’t want his team to lose and he had something to do with it.”
- Game 3 against the Sixers also featured “the worst feeling” Justin has had this season. Jayson — who is shooting 82.6 percent from the line — missed three consecutive free throws during the fourth quarter and overtime period. “I’ve never seen him miss three throws in a row,” Justin said. “He just needs to take his time on that.” As for the “he’s a rookie chants,” Justin said he likes them, but pleads to his son, “Don’t miss your free throws while they’re saying that!”
Justin said Al Horford has been a terrific influence on Jayson. “Al has done wonders for him. Wonders,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for him to be around better vets, mild-mannered and family-oriented type of guys.”