BOSTON — It’s almost unfathomable that a team could be one win away from the NBA Finals when a rookie is its leading scorer in the playoffs.
But that’s the situation the Celtics find themselves in after rookie forward Jayson Tatum scored a team-high 24 points in Boston’s 96-83 Game 5 win at TD Garden on Wednesday night.
“Obviously we needed his scoring greatly,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We had a lot of guys that struggled with their shot (Wednesday night), and he made some big plays. I think that he would be the first to tell you that he enjoys playing in these types of games and was looking forward to (Wednesday night) after the two in Cleveland.”
Tatum paced the Celtics with nine first-quarter points, helping them build a 32-19 lead after 12 minutes. It was the type of aggressive start the Celtics sorely needed after trailing by 15-plus points after one quarter in each of the last two games (both losses) in Cleveland.
Tatum’s 24 points came on 7-for-15 shooting (7-for-8 from the foul line), and he also filled the stat sheet with seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a career-high four steals. His defense — whether it was forcing turnovers, contesting shots, deflecting passes or denying entry into the post — was phenomenal.
His 12th point put him at 300 for the entire postseason. He’s the first rookie since 1978 to score 300-plus points in a single playoff run, and the sixth overall to reach that milestone.
Scoring certainly hasn’t come easy for Tatum at times in the postseason. Opponents are looking to take advantage of his inexperience and play him very physical. The Cavs tried that in Game 5 but were unsuccessful in knocking Tatum off his game.
“J.R., Jeff Green, they’re playing really hard on Tatum and making it very tough,” Stevens said. “But he’s had a lot of experiences over the last couple weeks dealing with playoff defense. I thought Milwaukee guarded him exceptionally hard and were really committed when he drove to the rim to having multiple bodies there. I thought that Philly obviously guarded him very hard. It’s hard to make plays at this level in these games, and he’s done that pretty consistently.”
The Celtics will need a lot more scoring from Tatum if they’re going to overcome their road woes and clinch an NBA Finals berth with a Game 6 win in Cleveland on Friday night.
Fortunately for Boston, Tatum enjoys the high-pressure stage and isn’t afraid of the moment.
“I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games,” Tatum said.
“I think that’s when I have the most fun, when things are on the line. A lot of guys stepped up (Wednesday night). I can’t say it enough: We’re one win away from going to The Finals, especially after everything we’ve been through.”
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports