LOS ANGELES -- The improvement in Jayson Tatum’s game earned him a trip to this year’s All-Star game.
On Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers, Tatum’s play may have earned him something even greater - respect around the league as a superstar whose time to dominate may be sooner than anyone anticipated.
Boston wound up losing 114-112 to the Los Angeles Lakers, but here’s the thing.
On a night when the Lakers were at full strength roster-wise, led by top-five players LeBron James and Anthony Davis, it was Tatum - not James, not Davis - who was the best player on the floor.
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He led all scorers with a career-high-tying 41 points, most of which came through the first three quarters of play.
“Tatum has reached a new height; superstar level,” said teammate Jaylen Brown. “We all have to continue to improve and go with him. The way he’s playing is unreal.”
Tatum got seemingly wherever he wanted to for most of the game.
“That’s what he does,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the loss. “We realize it’s his career-high. He’s been at that level for us for a long time.”
And he did it against a Lakers team that’s loaded with above-average wing defenders such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and former Celtics Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis also had turns defending Tatum who continued to score on them as well.
It didn’t matter who was in front of Tatum defensively.
He either shot over them, went around them with dribble-drive-penetration, or drew a foul as he finished 13-for-15 from the line (both career highs).
But on a night when he was the brightest star in Hollywood, having outperformed two of the league’s best in James and Davis, all Tatum could think about was the game’s final outcome - a two-point Celtics loss.
“I just … wish we would have won,” Tatum said. “That’s all that really matters. I know what I am capable of and my teammates know that we know what each and every guy can do. We just want to win at the end of the day.”
And while Tatum’s monster night scoring certainly stood out, he also made his presence felt defensively with his man-to-man defense as well as providing help-side defense from time to time.
But as much as the focus afterward was on what Tatum did, more important to the Celtics is what he will do going forward and how to best utilize the added attention that he will get.
One of the keys to the Lakers pulling out the win was how well they adjusted to Tatum in the fourth quarter, limiting him to just four points on 1-for-3 shooting from the field.
The reason he wasn’t more of a scoring factor in the fourth was because of the Lakers defense blitzing him almost immediately upon the ball getting into his hands.
“He (Tatum) saw some run-and-jumps that he hasn’t seen as much so that’s good practice,” Stevens said. “Good to know that we have to look at that. We should be able to take advantage of that a little bit better than we did.”
Indeed, it’s a good problem to have going forward especially knowing that come playoff time, teams won’t be able to double-team Tatum as much with Kemba Walker around.
Walker is suffering from left knee soreness, and missed Sunday’s game - his second straight.
While his injury doesn’t appear to be a long-term problem, the games he doesn’t play with provide ample opportunities for Tatum to build off of what he did against the Lakers and likely result in even more double teams coming his way.
“They better double team him, I tell you that; he gets it smoking like he did tonight,” Brown said. “You better double team him because one man can’t guard him.”
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