The Celtics have won five of their last six games after rallying against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, and for the first time this season, they have looked like a coherent basketball team in the process.
A big part of that surge has been Jayson Tatum, who won Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday after posting a conference-best 31.5 points per game in four contests.
The big single-game performance came on Friday in a tight win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, when Tatum poured in a career-high 53 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He added 28 against the Nuggets on Sunday as the Celtics rallied back, as well as 25 against both the Knicks and Sixers. The Celtics went 3-1, losing only to Philadelphia.
“It was a lot like what I recall about Isaiah [Thomas] on many occasions: He just wouldn’t let us lose,” Brad Stevens said after Friday’s game. “Tatum was like that. When we were coming back in the third, you could see he had it. …
“Don’t mistake his quiet demeanor for not being a competitor. He is a competitor.”
Tatum’s big games often coincide with Celtics victories. In 2019-20, he scored 26 points or more 27 times. In those games, the Celtics went 22-5, and they were 12-3 when he scored 30 or more. This season, the Celtics have been more inconsistent during Tatum’s big games (7-6 when he scores 30 or more), but they have also been more inconsistent overall. The Celtics have won seven of their last 10 overall, during which Tatum has averaged 29.4 points on 49.5 percent shooting, including 39.1 percent from 3-point range.
Tatum’s big stretch put him in line with some elite Celtics benchmarks. He became the first Celtic since Paul Pierce in 2003 to score 25 points and pull down 10 rebounds in three consecutive games, per the Celtics, and he became the first Celtic since Larry Bird in 1989 to tally 50 points and 10 rebounds in a game.
After Friday’s game, a reporter noted to Tatum that Bird scored 53 points in his fourth year as well — a game against the Indiana Pacers.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words — any time you mention someone like that, the greatest players ever, it’s an honor,” Tatum said. “I just grew up wanting to be in the NBA when I was a kid. Now I have my dream at a high level.”
Interestingly, Bird went 0-for-1 from 3-point range in his 53-point game but made all 11 of his free-throw attempts. Tatum finished 16-for-25 and went 6-for-10 from deep.
Tatum’s performance has trended upwards as he puts more distance between himself and his bout with COVID-19. While he hasn’t explicitly linked his recent uptick to improved health, he did say he struggled to get his wind back in the early going.
On Sunday, Tatum was asked about the Celtics’ season, which suddenly looks a little more promising.
“It’s certainly going in the right direction,” Tatum said. “We still have some things to improve on. But hopefully, we can just continue to build off this.”
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