BOSTON — With a driving finger roll late in the third quarter, Jayson Tatum had matched his career high of 39 points. But the two 3-pointers he had clanged right before it confirmed he was acutely aware of just how close he was to the first 40-point game of his career.
So imagine Tatum’s surprise when, with Jaylen Brown shooting free throws with 1:43 to play in the frame, Kemba Walker pointed at him as he was checking back into the game. Tatum, stuck at 39 points and believing his night was over, took a step towards the Boston bench when Walker finally gave up the gag, informing Tatum that he was actually coming in for Gordon Hayward.
Both Tatum and Walker got a good laugh out of the ruse. Shortly after, Walker assisted on another Tatum driving layup that gave the 21-year-old a new career high of 41 points.
"Oh, you seen that? I just wanted to mess with him a little bit,” Walker said with a big smile after Boston’s lopsided 140-105 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night at TD Garden.
"I know he wanted to get his 40 bad. Feel like I’d mess with him a minute. … I was f---ing with him but that’s my man right there. I like messing with him.”
After a sometimes tense week in which the Celtics lost three straight for the first time this season, encountering their first bit of turbulence in the 2019-20 campaign, Tatum’s outburst was exactly what the doctor ordered.
But no one appreciated Tatum's first 40-point night more than Walker.
"It’s cool, man. I love seeing these guys do what they do, put up numbers, enjoy the game, and see your hard work pay off,” said Walker. "I’ve been there, I’ve scored 40 before, I know what that feeling is like, especially to be in the NBA and score 40 points.
"That’s unreal, man. It’s hard. It’s hard to score 40 in this league so I’m happy for him."
Tatum produced the best scoring night of his young career on uber-efficient 16-of-22 shooting. He made six of the nine 3-pointers he put up and added six rebounds, four assists, and three steals. He was plus-30 in 30 minutes.
In a season in which Tatum’s success has come with the asterisk of often inefficient shooting — he entered the night shooting career worsts at 42 percent overall and 35.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc — Saturday’s outburst was much needed for both player and team.
Tatum got bottled up by Ben Simmons on a big stage during Thursday’s loss in Philadelphia. The 48-hour ramp to Saturday’s tilt was filled with angst from Celtics fans wondering if their team was truly a contender and if its collection of talented wings could all coexist.
Tatum and his teammates responded with their highest scoring first-quarter of the season (appropriately, a 41-point outburst) and hung 72 points on the Pelicans in the first half (matching their largest first-half output of the season). Tatum was ultra-aggressive from the start, attacking the basket regularly as Boston built an early cushion.
"I just felt like I needed to be better, and the starters felt the same way, just to start the game off better,” said Tatum. "Hopefully we keep it up.”
The Celtics can’t take too much from a win over the beleaguered Pelicans, a team ransacked of talent by the injury bug (though rookie Zion Williamson was in town, and might just be back in uniform when the teams meet again later this month in New Orleans) and playing the second night of a back-to-back with that shorthanded roster.
Still, Tatum’s big night was impossible to ignore, particularly putting up that sort of number in only three quarters.
“Obviously, it feels good for sure, but I never get too high or too low, if I play well or if I don’t,” said Tatum. "For me, I feel like I got a long way to go, and the guys I looked up to, they have nights like this more often than not. So, obviously it feels good, but just try to do it more often, be consistent, and continue to get better.
"After tonight you gotta forget about it and move on to the next one.”
Tatum’s response might be even better than his play. What separates All-Star-players from the rest of the league is their ability to consistently impact winning. Boston’s on/off splits confirm that Tatum has been as important to the team’s success as anyone but he’s also had nights against good teams like Philadelphia in which he’s struggled.
On Saturday night, Tatum did everything. He attacked the basket, he defended with intensity, and he didn’t get overly fixated on scoring (well, maybe outside of that late third stretch while trying to ensure 40 points). At one point in the third quarter, he passed up a solid 3-point look above the break to swing the ball to Hayward in the corner for an even better look (Hayward knocked it down).
“[Tatum] played really well tonight,” said Hayward. "And super efficient as well, so you love to see that. Like I said, most of his points, I feel like, were in the flow of the game. It wasn't like he was forcing anything, which was really good.
"So I'm happy for him. He was able to knock down some big-time shots and get to 41. Any time you can score 40 in this league, that's a big number. I'm happy for him and it's the first of many.”
Enes Kanter, who had a monster night of his own with 22 points and 19 rebounds in just 23 minutes, said of Tatum: "It’s amazing, man, to see him out there, just having fun, making himself better and making everybody else better. Just killing it every night. People always talk about, offensively, but he's just doing an amazing job on both ends. So it's been unbelievable to just witness it, what he's doing.”
A monster scrum of reporters piled around Tatum after the game and his young son, Deuce, joined his dad as he answered questions about his big night. Across the locker room, Walker took in the scene. A reporter suggested he must remember what it’s like to be that young and score 40 points for the first time.
"No, I don’t,” said Walker, taking a second to marvel at Tatum’s age of 21 years, 314 days. Walker was 24 years, 233 days when he finally broke the 40-point barrier against Orlando on Dec. 27, 2014.
"That’s special right there, man. For him to be able to get 40 points at 21 years old — man, that’s special.”
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Bulls-Celtics, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.