Kemba Walker marvels at 21-year-old Jayson Tatum's big night for Celtics: 'That's special right there'

Kemba Walker marvels at 21-year-old Jayson Tatum's big night for Celtics: 'That's special right there'

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.”

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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.”

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On a historic night, Marcus Smart's best moment wasn't any of his 11 3-pointers

On a historic night, Marcus Smart's best moment wasn't any of his 11 3-pointers

BOSTON — The most notable sequence of Marcus Smart’s historic night came after he set a new Boston Celtics franchise record for 3-pointers in a game.

With 36.9 seconds to play and Smart at the wheel of Boston’s frenetic comeback attempt, Brad Stevens drew up an absolute gem coming out of a timeout. Smart, on the sideline opposite the Boston bench, waited patiently for the Suns’ defense to commit, then lobbed a perfect feed towards the rim for a curling Gordon Hayward.

Only Hayward got caught in between a dunk and a layup. He put it off the glass a little too strong and it caught the side rim as Devin Booker scrambled in for the rebound while the entire Garden let out an audible gasp.

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Hayward fouled Booker, then stood paralyzed, like a Fortnite player after a wifi dropout, in the charge circle. While a couple of teammates covered their mouths in disbelief on the bench, Hayward glared up at the JumboTron, hands on his hips trying to process a miss that would have made it a one-possession game.

Standing about 30 feet away, Smart starting an encouraging clap. Then walked all the way to Hayward, who wore a thousand-yard stare. When Smart got close, he offered a couple of encouraging pats on the chest before wrapping his left arm around Hayward then added a couple of backside pats as players finally made their way to the other end of the floor.

"I've been in that moment. I've been there where you miss a crucial play, a crucial bucket, or make a mistake that you think at the time cost the game for you,” said Smart, who scored a career-high 37 points while making a team-record 11 3-pointers during a 123-119 loss.

"But I told him keep your head up. You're OK. You missing that is not why we are down and, if we lose the game, it's not why we lost the game. You're going to get more opportunities and get more wide-open layups. Just knock down the next one.”

We’re admittedly guilty of reflecting too much on last season’s woes but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that it was a year ago this week when, after Boston missed a final shot attempt in Orlando, Kyrie Irving stalked after Hayward, arms out in exasperation, wondering why Irving hadn’t gotten the ball for the final attempt.

Smart, as competitive as anyone in the world, could have been forgiven if he reacted poorly to Hayward’s miss. An impossible late-fourth-quarter double-digit comeback would have been the perfect exclamation point on Smart’s career night. This article would have been all about Smart’s absurd shooting and how he shuffled into Boston’s top 5 in career 3-pointers if the Celtics pull out the win.

Instead, it’s about how Smart’s greatest value is that he just gets it.

This is the part where we’re supposed to lobby for Smart to be named captain of the Celtics. Except it’s not really necessary. Stevens doesn’t love the idea of captains, yearns to empower everyone on the team, and nobody needs to add a “C” next to Smart’s name on the roster printout to know who is the primary leader of this group.

It’s Smart, warts and all. The same guy who ripped off his jersey and stomped off the floor after getting tossed from an unsightly loss to the Pistons is the same guy who knew in the moment on Saturday that he had to lift a teammate up after a stomach-punch sequence.

Smart is the same guy who stood in front of reporters after Saturday’s game, chastised the team’s recent defensive efforts, then wrapped Hayward in a giant bearhug from behind before leaving the locker room.

“[Smart] was just like, ‘Move on, it’s all good, stay with us.’ But in the moment it’s hard to let that one go,” said Hayward. "We needed that bucket for sure. We still had a chance there, but certainly needed that one.”

Hayward, riding a bit of a roller coaster of consistency since returning from a foot injury on Christmas Day, shut his eyes Saturday night with that miss undoubtedly on replay in his mind. But he’d probably be beating himself up a bit more if Smart and his teammates weren’t so eager to let him know that that one miss didn’t swing Saturday’s game.

Smart turned in the shooting performance of a lifetime on Saturday night. The Celtics were playing without Kemba Walker (sore knee) and Jaylen Brown (sprained thumb) and Smart took full advantage of the available shots. He hoisted a staggering 25 attempts, including a team-record 22 3-pointers, but made 13 shots overall including the 11 beyond the arc, besting the team’s previous record mark of nine 3-point makes.

Smart's 37 points also shattered his previous best scoring night — 27 points versus Cleveland in the 2017 playoffs — by double digits. Smart had posted a season-high 24 points in Milwaukee on Thursday night and produced the first consecutive 20+ point nights of his career with Saturday’s outburst.

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In typical Smart fashion, he wasn’t in much of a mood to celebrate after a loss.

"Right now, [the record] means nothing. I’d trade all that in for a win, especially with the way this team has been playing,” said Smart. "I’d rather have the win than the record. I mean, obviously it’s a great accomplishment. It just shows the hard work that I’ve been putting in is paying off.

"But I’d rather trade that in for the win.”

As for Hayward, he finds himself at the center of many fans' frustrations. To some, the late-game miss is only more evidence that Hayward just isn’t the same player, even further removed from his ankle injury. Despite some excellent nights this season, especially before a hand injury sidelined him for a month, some fans are eager for Boston to move on from the Hayward experience.

Frustrations are natural when a maximum-salary player struggles. Hayward certainly hasn’t played with the same aggression lately — at least not consistently — and it was fair to wonder if he was feeling 100 percent healthy.

Hayward admitted at Saturday’s morning shootaround that his foot remains an issue but not one that he believes is contributing to his inconsistencies. When multiple questions asked whether his foot/ankle woes contributed to his key miss, Hayward bristled a bit.

“It has nothing to do with that,” said Hayward. “I missed a layup. So that’s it.”

Some will continue to scream for a Hayward deal, picking out whatever overpriced big man they think will improve Boston’s ability to compete with East rivals Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The fact is that Boston’s best chance to compete this year might hinge simply on keeping its five best players healthy and figuring out how they all work best together.

The Celtics need Hayward. Smart recognized that on Saturday.

Injuries have made everything a challenge lately. A revolving-door starting lineup has hindered chemistry and continuity. This team has needs beyond size and it wouldn’t require moving either Smart or Hayward to obtain the shooting that Boston’s bench so clearly needs. If you want to scream for Danny Ainge to make a move, start there.

A relentless schedule is forcing Boston to address its defensive slippage on the fly. Hayward doesn’t need to make that layup if Boston doesn’t allow Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges to get hot at the start of the game.

The Celtics are in a funk and it’s going to take a lot of effort to pull themselves out of this skid. The schedule remains daunting through the end of the month and the barrage of games will force the team to make tweaks on the fly.

Hayward needs to be better. He knows it. Smart knows that little good could have come from overreacting to a miscue. The Celtics will be better in the long run for the way Smart handled that situation.

It’ll mean a lot more than any of the 37 points he scored on Saturday night.

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What's ailing the Celtics' defense? Here are some theories

What's ailing the Celtics' defense? Here are some theories

BOSTON — Having clawed their way back from 16 points down to make it a one-possession game with a minute to play, the Boston Celtics needed against Phoenix on Saturday what used to be a given in these stressful moments: a defensive stop.

As Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges’ fadeaway jumper in the paint left his fingertips and hung on the rim’s lip for what seemed like an eternity, there was a moment in time when the chances of that ball dropping through the net were just as good as they were for it to roll out. 

It eventually fell through the net, the Celtics went on to lose 123-119, and the team’s defense once again came up short when they were most needed.

In that possession, like so many lately, the Celtics did most of what was necessary. But this team isn’t built to be successful by just doing a pretty good job. 

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The margin for error to be one of the NBA's best teams is razor thin. That's partly why many of their losses of late fall into the good, but not good enough to win, category. 

“I mean, there’s 50 things to do on a possession,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “Right now we’re doing about 46 on our best ones, and we need to do 50.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. 

It’s not like it’s one or two of the same things that are problematic for their defense — which, by the way, not so long ago was considered one of the league's best. 

The Celtics' defensive rating of 105.6 still puts them at the fifth-best in the NBA this season.  But over the last eight games, that shot up to 111.8, which ranks 16th in the league during that span. 

It hasn’t helped that most of the teams Boston has faced lately, have come into the game playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Suns for example, have struggled for most of the season but won three of four headed into Saturday. 

That may be a factor. But players are quick to point out that the bigger issues defensively stem from a lack of the consistency we'd seen earlier this season. 

“Just not really running our system on the defensive end,” Marcus Smart said. “You know we gave up a lot of easy, easy, easy lay-ups at the rim. Guys are supposed to be pulled in and it’s like we don’t know what we are doing out there and that’s a problem. 

"We’re not really holding guys accountable on the defensive end. We can score the ball with the best of them but for some reason we are allowing, when we go in those rolls, we’re missing (shots) to affect our defense.”

Gordon Hayward added, “For whatever reason guys are scoring on us at a high clip so we have to figure what we have to do to shut that down.”

There are ample factors contributing to the team’s defensive struggles of late. Stevens knows what has to get better for his team at that end of the floor. 

“Everything,” he said. “I just … everything. Just every … every single angle you take on a pick-and-roll, how much you get into the body, how much do you chase, how, when do you switch, how high are you as a big, when do you step back, how you guard the down-screen, do you trail it? Do you go under it? Do you meet them on a catch? What do you do?”

For Boston to get back on that track, the jobs to be done lie on the defensive side of the ball. 

“It takes everybody, you know, and it’s not easy,” Smart said. “You know, coming in you’ve got a team that’s really talented. They’re coming in to play and beat you so we got to be on top of our games and we just got to understand that we’re going to have nights where we don’t shoot the ball well but we can’t have nights where we just don’t bring it on the defensive end.”

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