BOSTON — When Jayson Tatum’s exploits weren’t causing Paul Pierce to explode out of his baseline seat and swing his fists in excitement, Pierce often watched Tatum with a snarled lip, some of Tatum’s finishes around the rim causing Pierce’s exaggerated reactions.
Pierce, who had already boldly declared on a special edition of ESPN’s The Jump that Tatum was going to be better than him, seemed mesmerized by some of what Tatum was doing on the latest stage.
Tatum capped one of the best months in Celtics history with his fourth straight 30+ point night during Houston’s 111-110 overtime triumph. Tatum put up 32 points but struggled with his efficiency, connecting on just 9 of 27 shots and missing eight of the 12 triples he hoisted. Tatum added 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks, but also had 5 turnovers.
All of which is to say it wasn’t his finest performance but it definitely had its moments. The Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month award likely awaits Tatum for his February exploits that muscled him into an elite group of Celtics scorers.
Tatum is only the fifth player in team history to finish a calendar month averaging better than 30 points over a minimum of 10 games. He joins only Isaiah Thomas, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, and John Havlicek — or four of the best pure scorers the team has employed.
Still, Tatum will undoubtedly be left lamenting the shots he didn’t make Saturday night, most notably a driving layup with under a minute to play in overtime that he airmailed (and that Daniel Theis couldn’t quite clean up) with Boston up 1. Tatum was a spectator on the final possession as Jaylen Brown’s 15-foot pull-up found front rim.
The Celtics might not have had a chance to win without Tatum. He breathed life back into TD Garden early in the fourth quarter and a driving finger roll that knotted the game at 87 had Pierce excitedly pumping his fist with 2008 teammate Kendrick Perkins seated next to him.
Tatum finished February averaging 30.7 points over 37.2 minutes per game in 12 appearances. He shot 49.4 percent overall and 48.1 percent beyond the arc, all while adding 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.2 steals over 37.2 minutes per game.
His minutes total got driven higher by two overtime games, including a thrilling double-OT win over the Clippers before the All-Star break. In the five games since the All-Star game, all without Kemba Walker, Tatum averaged 34 points while shooting 50.9 percent overall and 50 percent beyond the arc over 37.9 minutes per game.
Tatum’s per-36 numbers for February shuffle him ahead of some of Bird’s finest months (all but March 1986). Only Pierce’s February 2006, and nearly the entirety of Thomas’ absurd 2016-17 campaign, were better in terms of pure scoring output.
Celtics players spent the month as mesmerized by Tatum as Pierce was. Enes Kanter said teammates openly wondered on the bench what had gotten into Tatum during this absurd run, particularly the way his confidence exploded as his game blossomed on some big stages. The consensus seems to be that Tatum earning an All-Star nod paved a path to playing like a true star without the pressure of that goal weighing on him.
The Rockets game is a nice reminder that there’s still plenty of room for growth for Tatum, something that coach Brad Stevens highlighted before Saturday’s showdown.
"He’s got a lot of room to improve, which is good,” said Stevens. "We saw that on the west coast in the Lakers game. He saw a bunch of doubles and we watched those all as a team. And then, in the Utah game, I thought he was way better against them, and that’s just because he sees some of that stuff for the first time.
"That’s the thing about the special players in the league — and [James] Harden’s a good example of this, he’s seen everything. But he’s seen it for years and years and years now. And even the doubles that maybe haven’t come as frequently as they do now, he’s seen them at times over the last couple of years. Tatum’s greatest strength to me is his emotional ability to be great at any moment and his ability to quickly learn something.
"I always remember one of his first exhibition games, Charlotte ran a play that a lot of NBA teams run, and we had not gone through it in any way. He got burned on the first one. And on the second one he figured it out. And that’s why I think he has a chance to be really special. But he’d be the first to tell you he’s not finished and he can still get a lot better. Because he’s going to see all this new stuff.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni dubbed Tatum “another superstar,” and wondered about his team’s ability to contain him. The Rockers did about as good of a job as they could have hoped for and, if not for a flukey sequence off Tatum’s intentionally missed free throw at the end of regulation, might not have needed an extra session to sweep the season series from Boston.
The atmosphere and the energy of Saturday’s game will help Tatum as he moves forward. There are no silver linings for the Celtics in these sort of losses — especially not ones in which they were up 17 before letting Houston back in, and ones that could have been put away in the extra session.
Tatum still has room to improve. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll have as good of a month, statistically, any time soon, especially when a healthy Walker returns. But he can continue his ascent to NBA superstardom by more consistently impacting both ends of the court in a positive way, including saving his best work for crunch-time moments.
That’s when superstars like Pierce used to really assert themselves among the league’s elite. Tatum must learn to do the same.
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