This was the player the Nets were so worried about — someone capable of wrecking a game, and possibly even their season.
Friday night, that Jayson Tatum showed up.
The young Celtics star shook off shaky performances in the first two games to shoot his team back into this best-of-seven, opening-round series. The two-time All-Star wreaked havoc on the Nets, carrying the Celtics to a 125-119 Game 3 victory at TD Garden in Boston with 50 points, his career best in a playoff game.
After Kevin Durant limited him to a 15.5-point average on 28 percent shooting in the opening two games in Brooklyn, Tatum torched Durant and everyone else the Nets threw at him. He sank long jump shots, scored in the post and created for his teammates, doing everything in his power to breathe life back into the Celtics. Consider that mission accomplished.
“He’s so advanced for 23 years old,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I’ve said the word special — I don’t say that very often, obviously — and he just has the unique ability to score the ball and slither through seems, and find angles to score, but then also has the vision to make every right read. He was super tonight, but he’s been like that a lot this year.”
After a strong first half in which the 6-foot-8 Tatum scored 21 points, he erupted for 19 in the third quarter as the Celtics built a 14-point lead. He used his size to shoot over smaller defenders and his athleticism to create space against bigger ones or simply to go by them. Tatum went 5-for-11 from 3-point range, shot 16-for-30 from the field and 13-for-15 from the free-throw line. He also added six rebounds and seven assists in a performance reminiscent of his 50-point masterpiece in the inaugural play-in-round win against the Wizards.
“It was just one of those nights,” said Tatum, who became just the sixth Celtic to score 50 points in a playoff game. “Tough shooting night the first game and obviously didn’t get to play that much last game because of getting poked in my eye. So we were trying to protect home court, trying to win at all costs.”
When the Nets sent multiple defenders at Tatum, he set up his teammates. On one play, Tatum sent Durant to the floor with a crossover, then fed Marcus Smart for an open 3-pointer as a help defender came at him. Perhaps his biggest find was his drive-and-dish to Evan Fournier that pushed the lead to nine with 4:26 remaining. Tatum iced it with a pull-up jumper in Durant’s face that extended the lead to seven with 40.8 seconds remaining.
“His mentality [was] attack, attack, attack,” Smart said. “Just keep going, no matter what.”
It was a stark contrast to the first two games, when Tatum never really found his rhythm and didn’t play over the final 20:48 of Game 2 after his right eye was scratched. At that point, the Celtics looked overmatched and the series seemed destined to be a walkover for the Nets.
It had a completely different feel Friday night. Tatum’s vision was fine and his shot was on target — and now the Celtics are back in this series.