By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You may have heard that Jayson Tatum is a 20-year-old rookie.
But even if we’ve been reminded of his age and status in the NBA every 15 seconds this season (and more frequently in the playoffs), it’s easy to forget he’s a 20-year-old rookie when watching Tatum play.
Boston’s rising star once again showed the poise of a veteran on Wednesday night, leading the Celtics with 24 points while propelling them to a 96-83 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. He notched his first 20+ point evening of the Conference finals on 7-for-15 shooting, showing off his array of offensive moves. Whether he was taking a contested three or a fade-away with the shot clock winding down, there was ice in Tatum’s veins throughout Wednesday night’s win. He also pulled down seven rebounds, frequently handled the ball and dished out four assists, and played an all-around solid defensive game, coming up with four turnovers.
“I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games,” Tatum said after the game. “That’s just when I have the most fun.”
Tatum had it going early, finishing the first half with 12 points as Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown struggled to find their shot, and there was no hesitation or panic throughout. When he ended up with Tristan Thompson covering him and the shot clock approaching zero in the third quarter, Tatum calmly drained an elbow jumper to put Boston up 63-48. Later in the quarter, he outran LeBron James for a loose ball that he had tipped away on an errant pass by Kevin Love, and then outran James to the hoop, finishing with ease to give Boston a 74-58 lead.
The Cavaliers tried to get physical with Tatum to knock him out of his rhythm, but Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said his young star has grown used to that over the last six weeks. As he did throughout the regular season and now in the playoffs, Tatum has risen to the occasion when the Celtics have needed him.
“It’s hard to make plays at this level in these games, and he’s done that pretty consistently,” Stevens said after the win.
But none of this is surprising to Stevens or the Boston brass. They knew they were getting a special player when they drafted him third overall last June.
“I think Jayson was ready to deal with everything that comes with this because of who he is and his family and all his coaches before, because he’s a very emotionally steady, smart player that was going to perform at a high level above his age,” said Stevens. “I don’t know that anybody could guess this as a rookie, but you knew he was going to be really good.”
“The kid’s got game,” said C’s forward Marcus Morris. “He’s special.”
Special is an understatement. Tatum has been Boston’s best scorer throughout the playoffs and now has a few NBA records all to himself. He became the youngest player to score 20 or more points in a Conference finals game on Wednesday night, and the youngest to score 300 points in a single postseason. He’s just the sixth rookie to hit the 300-point mark, joining the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson.
Unlike most NBA superstars, Tatum is quiet and soft spoken. But being one of the best players in the league is his goal, and he’s not afraid to let everyone know. Just ask his mother, Brandy Cole, who has been Tatum’s biggest inspiration every step of the way.
“Just getting to the league was never our goal,” Cole recently told WBZ-TV. “That’s just the next step. He wants to be the best of the best, to leave his mark on the league like Kobe, LeBron, Kevin Durant. That’s his goal.”
It’s hard not to believe that Tatum has a great chance at achieving that goal. He started 80 games for Boston during the regular season, thriving in an expanded role after Gordon Hayward’s unfortunate Opening Night injury. Very few moments have looked too big for him, and the Celtics are going to need another giant performance from Tatum when they try to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals Friday night in Cleveland.
The fourth win of a series is always the hardest to get, and the Celtics had a pair of disappointing efforts in their two previous games in Cleveland (they’re just 1-6 on the road this postseason). But Tatum is playing with the confidence and composure of a seasoned veteran, and hopes he gets a chance to continue doing so for the Celtics on an even bigger and brighter stage.
“I can’t say enough. We’re one win away from the finals,” he said. “The playoffs bring the best out of players, and hopefully we keep it going.”