Jayson Tatum has to be better.
No, that doesn’t mean more points than the 29 he dropped on Toronto in Boston’s 125-122 double overtime loss.
That doesn’t mean he has to be a bigger beast on the boards than he was in Game 6 when he grabbed 14 rebounds along with dishing out nine assists.
Those are all good numbers, for sure. But he has to be better.
Because Toronto is too mentally tough to just fold and go away without Boston’s best player getting the better of them and winning that basketball fight. Tatum has to be the series grave-digger if the Celtics are going to finally bury the Raptors.
This series with Toronto has exposed Tatum in so many ways; some good and some not so good. For those who put him and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam on the same level as players … just stop!
Siakam’s ascension to being Toronto’s best player on paper at least made for a nice story, especially coming on the heels of winning a title and him being charged with being the franchise replacement for Kawhi Leonard. But as we’ve seen Siakam struggle in the Bubble and in this series against Boston … he ain’t Jayson Tatum … or Kawhi Leonard.
Meyers Leonard? Maybe … maybe.
But this story — much like this playoff series — isn't about Siakam. It’s about Tatum's ascension to superstardom and his ability to lead both by example and results.
For the most part, he has done a good job of growing into the position of a franchise player, showcasing skills that seemingly got better from one month to the next this season.
And there’s legit optimism that the 22-year-old will continue to elevate his game as it becomes more refined with time and wisdom. He is on an undeniable growth curve which only becomes harder to fully realize the deeper you get in the playoffs.
Tatum has the skills to not just survive but thrive in such an environment, which is why his play in Game 6 was so puzzling — and to be candid — disappointing.
For all the points and rebounds and assists he racked up, there were also a career-high-tying six turnovers with none looming as inexplicable as the one in the latter stages of play that looked more like a pass to Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
It’s one thing when James Harden or Russell Westbrook racks up a ton of turnovers. That’s what they do! But Tatum?
He is one of the best at being impactful without making a ton of mistakes or having mental gaffes while on the floor which is the only way to describe the “pass” to Nurse.
But we saw a little bit of everything from Tatum in Game 6 — the promise and potential of being a great player, but also the problems of not being able to lead the team on to the next stage of their growth in the least amount of time.
And because of that, Boston now finds itself in a one-game series against arguably the most mentally tough team in the East, a series that felt like it should have ended after five games.
This series is no longer about which team has the most talent. It’s about who can survive and thrive in what has been a mentally exhausting stretch of basketball for both teams.
You could tell by some of the chirping on the floor in Game 6 and soon after its conclusion, that we’re nearing the end of some team’s season so players are trying to find any and all advantages that they can come up with in order to prolong their season.
For the Celtics, it’s not all that complicated to figure out what has to happen in order for them to keep on playing beyond Friday’s Game 7 matchup.
Yes, getting more than five points from Kemba Walker, who logged more than 50 minutes in Game 6, would be nice. A friendly whistle from time to time for Daniel Theis would be a good (and very unexpected) surprise as well. And man, would it be nice to have Gordon Hayward available to play, though we know that won’t happen.
What we do know is that Tatum is the Celtics’ best player — and with that status, he represents the best shot that this team has of getting out of the second round of the playoffs and on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
And there’s no magical number he needs to hit in terms of points or rebounds or assists to make that happen. Tatum just has to be better, pure and simple.
And what that looks like can be summed up in one word: victory.