By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Riddled by injuries the last few weeks, the Celtics have had to rely on a group of role players and youngsters to step up.
It’s not the best situation for a team with title aspirations with the playoffs less than a month away, and has led to some frustrating nights for the Celtics, who dropped three of their last four entering Tuesday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But rookie Jayson Tatum stepped up in a big way on Tuesday, with the 20-year-old contributing in just about every way possible. His all-around performance lifted the undermanned C’s to a stunningly improbable 100-99 victory, a big shot of confidence for a team that needed it badly.
Tatum finished his night with a team-high 23 points and 11 rebounds, stuffing the stat sheet with four assists, a steal and a blocked shot. It was the third double-double of his rookie campaign, and the first 20-10 night of his young career.
He provided plenty of highlights throughout the game, exploding to the rim for a pair of ferocious first-half dunks that should hush the critics who say he can’t get to the rim. But his biggest and most important play of the evening was a helper, as he found Marcus Morris for the game-winning three with just 1.8 seconds left.
That find capped off a stellar stretch run for Tatum. Down by six points with 17.6 seconds to go, the Celtics were all but guaranteed another loss on their home court. Tatum cut it to four points with a nice driving layup, and the Celtics were granted new life after the Thunder missed three of four freebies (with a Terry Rozier three sandwiched in the middle). Carmelo Anthony missed both of his free throws with 8.4 seconds left, with Tatum nabbing the second miss, and the Celtics were down just 99-97.
Brad Stevens worked his magic on the white board, and out of Boston’s timeout, Tatum found Marcus Morris for the game-winning three with 1.8 seconds left. Just like they drew it up, right? Not so said the rookie, who took the blame rather than the credit following the unlikely victory.
“We kind of messed the play up. That’s why it looked like that. That was my fault, I was in the wrong spot,” Tatum admitted after the game. “Terry was supposed to come off a screen, and if he didn’t have a shot, then try to create. Then he couldn’t get open. Al [Horford] caught it, swung to me, they were collapsing all night. I tried to drive, found [Morris]. Luckily he hit it so we didn’t have to go into overtime.”
How’s that for a rookie staying humble after one of his best games as a pro? Though he only scored four points, Tatum was a beast in the fourth quarter. He collected five rebounds and scored or assisted on five of Boston’s final eight points. The Celtics outscored the Thunder by 23 points with Tatum on the floor on Tuesday.
“We’re just going to keep throwing him to the wolves and asking him to make big plays at the end,” Stevens said of Tatum. “Uur young guys have made them all year.”
Thrust into a bigger role after Gordon Hayward’s injury on opening night, Tatum has had his ups and downs throughout his rookie season. But along the way, he’s been learning valuable lessons and playing some extremely meaningful minutes, a nice silver lining to what happened five minutes into the season. He’s having yet another strong stretch for the Celtics over the last five games, shooting 50 percent and averaging 18.4 points. The rookie has started all 71 of Boston’s games this season, one of only two players to appear in every game (Rozier is the other).
The Celtics will continue to rely on the 20-year-old down the stretch as they await word on Kyrie Irving’s sore knee. He proved once again on Tuesday night that he’s more than up to the challenge.