Jayson Tatum’s best highlight from Game 7 was a savage, driving, one-handed dunk directly over LeBron James, in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics needed a spark. This was certainly one way of doing it!
That was a jarring moment for those of us who aren’t quite ready to let go of the LeBron era just yet—not only were the Celtics right in there late with a chance to eliminate the Cavs and keep LeBron out of the Finals for the first time in eight years, but here was their hotshot rookie posterizing LeBron himself, suddenly making him look not just human but personally vulnerable. And then giving him a little bit of the business afterward! Such insolence. How dare he!
Actually, every single one of Tatum’s buckets in Game 7 was slick and highlight-worthy. His game is gorgeous, and his confidence is outrageous, and, barring injury, he is going to rule the NBA someday very soon.
Tatum is 20 years old. He played one season of college basketball, and this was his rookie season, and in a seven game playoff series, in the Eastern Conference Finals, he led the Celtics in total minutes, and all Celtics rotation players in offensive efficiency, and put up 18 points per game, and was their best offensive player in Game 7, against the best player in the world.
It wasn’t a perfect outing from Tatum. The Cavs hunted him on defense, and LeBron moved him around, and Tatum wound up having to sit towards the end due to foul trouble. Mostly this had to do with Tatum being a scrawny child who can’t yet buy his own damn drinks, who has a few years of filling out left to do before he reaches his final form and becomes a human buzzsaw. Even with his unreasonably efficient scoring for a rookie—a team-high 24 points on 17 shots—the Celtics were still outscored by a whopping 17 points during his 42 minutes, in a nip-and-tuck game they lost by just eight. He is a rookie, after all.
But there are no empty calories to what Tatum produces on an NBA floor. He played like a superstar in these playoffs, and the Celtics used him like a superstar, and the Cavs defended him like a superstar, and he’s just a kid! The Celtics are in a position of absurd strength on the perimeter, going forward: Jaylen Brown played like an All-Star for long stretches of this season, as a sophomore; Terry Rozier emerged as a starting caliber point guard capable of electric two-way play; Gordon Hayward will be back next season, as will Kyrie Irving; and the Celtics will at least have the option of bringing back Marcus Smart, who makes some odd choices as a ball-handler but is one of the toughest defenders in all of basketball. But the jewel of that collection is Tatum. If they traded away all those other guys and just had Tatum, they’d still be in enviable shape.
He is almost enough to make an otherwise reasonable person root for the Celtics, just to see what he might someday pull off on an even bigger stage. This was just a preview.