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.”

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.

Enes Kanter Show: Celtics center explains importance of mental strength in NBA bubble

Enes Kanter Show: Celtics center explains importance of mental strength in NBA bubble

The NBA's bubble at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida will provide the players with plenty of fun activities -- bowling, golf, movies, video games and ping pong, among others -- in their spare time. This doesn't mean the environment will be without challenges, though.

The Boston Celtics traveled down to Orlando on Wednesday night, and they will be staying at the Gran Destino Tower during the league's restart.

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Not every player will be in perfect basketball shape once practices ramp up soon. That's understandable, and it's a challenge the players eventually will overcome. The mental challenges will be the most important -- and maybe the toughest -- to battle through given the uniqueness of the situation. 

In the latest episode of the The Enes Kanter Show podcast, Celtics center Enes Kanter explained the importance of mental strength in the league's bubble.

"All we have to do is get in game shape. We all know how to play basketball. It's like riding a bike -- you can't forget how to play basketball," Kanter said. "You can be a little rusty and get back into shape. But I think the important thing is the mental part because you're away from your family and loved ones for three months and now all you have is your basketball family and coaches. That's why the 3-month period before Orlando was so important to keep building that chemistry. I think now we're all bonding and the chemistry is really good. We all care about each other. We're just going to go out there and play golf, go bowling and fish all day, and other than that just play basketball. I feel, besides from the games, you can actually just relax. Read a book, just invest in yourself."

Enes Kanter Show: C's center gives first impressions of NBA bubble | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The bubble was made to ensure the players can continue playing in an environment that's as safe and as healthy as possible amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Players won't have the same freedom they normally do on the road, and the teams that are mentally tough and well prepared likely will enjoy the most success in Orlando.

Kanter is in no mood to complain. He's going to make the most out of the opportunity to compete for a championship, and you can bet his Celtics teammates will have a similar attitude. 

"Love it or hate, you're going to be here for three months," Kanter said. "So you might as well look at the positive side of it.

Check out The Enes Kanter Show on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below:

Celtics at Home: Which superhero is Marcus Smart most like?

Celtics at Home: Which superhero is Marcus Smart most like?

Boston Celtics star Marcus Smart often plays like a superhero on the basketball court.

The versatile guard plays multiple positions on offense and guards all five positions on defense. He'll hit 3-pointers, set up the offense, dive on the floor for loose balls, guard the opposing teams' best player, etc. There aren't many things Smart can't provide the Celtics. This all-around skill set is quite valuable to the C's, especially on defense. Smart was named to the league's All-Defensive first team last season, and he deserves a spot in that group again in 2019-20. 

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In the latest episode of Celtics at Home, one of the topics in the Celtics Census segment was, "which superhero is Marcus Smart most like?"

We asked 300 Celtics fans for the top six answers, and several of them are superheroes you would definitely associate with a player who excels on the defensive end of the court.

NBC Sports Boston's Abby Chin and former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins teamed up against C's head coach Brad Stevens and Smart to see who could come up with the right answers. 

Watch the video below to find out which team won. Be sure to check out the NBC Sports Boston YouTube page for more Celtics at Home videos and other content.