NEW YORK — This is what it has come to: Jayson Tatum can Dream Shake his way into a one-foot fadeaway jumper in the closing seconds under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden and his late-game clutchness is met with shoulder shrugs from both the 20-year-old star in the making and all of his teammates.
Like vintage Paul Pierce on the MSG stage, Tatum dazzled in the final minute on Saturday night, scoring Boston’s final six points as a tired-leg Celtics squad fended off the Knicks in a 103-101 triumph.
In little more than a year, Tatum has made these sort of moments seem perfunctory. His teammates seem nonplussed by his actions, like when Marcus Morris, who provided a mentoring presence for Tatum throughout his rookie season, downplayed Saturday’s late-game highlights by noting, “We see him in practice every day, so it’s really not new to us.”
Celtics coaches and teammates were actually more eager to point out Tatum’s miscues in the final minute. They needled him for a missed dunk right before what should have been the game-sealing fadeaway — if Tatum hadn’t committed a three-shot foul at the other end (fortunately for Tatum, Trey Burke missed the first of three freebies to help Boston escape).
As Celtics coach Brad Stevens arrived for his postgame press conference, a reporter referenced Boston’s late-game execution and started to ask about Tatum when the coach interjected to finish the query himself.
“Redeeming himself?” asked Stevens, needling the second-year forward for the missed dunk.
Kyrie Irving, as bullish as anyone in the Boston locker room on Tatum’s ceiling, also playfully chided Tatum about the missed slam.
"He should have made the dunk,” said Irving. "I told him, ‘I can’t dunk it for you, I can only pass you the ball.’ We joke about it, but even when he got the ball back, it was like three people all on one side screaming for the basketball. I was weak side, had my hands up as well like, ‘Yo, what’s going on?’”
A smile on his face, Irving finally threw Tatum a bone.
"He just made an unbelievable move, dream shake, tough shot,” said Irving. "That guy’s just super talented. To be so young, to be so poised, it’s an awesome trait for him.”
Irving, even as he shakes the rust from the two knee surgeries that cut short his 2017-18 season, is still Boston’s most unique talent. There have been small glimpses that remind us how good Irving can — and will — be, including a stretch in the fourth-quarter on Saturday night in which Irving seemed like the hero-in-the-making with flashy feeds and finishes.
But it’s becoming so very obvious that Tatum will eventually be Boston’s most talented all-around player. He’s got the size, skill, and basketball IQ that distinguishes him from even his most talented young peers. Maybe we needn’t hesitate when we wonder if Tatum will soon emerge as one the league’s top 10 players.
Because there have been no indications to think otherwise. Tatum finished Saturday’s game with a season-high 24 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. The absence of Gordon Hayward, resting his ankle on the second night of a back-to-back, only allowed Tatum to be more assertive. And while there will undoubtedly still be growing pains and Tatum must develop the consistency that all superstars in this league display, he has undoubtedly asserted himself as star ready.
"Go back to last year when he really came into his own,” said Morris. "Go around the league, there’s a lot of really young guys showing they can play at a high level, and Tatum is doing it every night. He’s carving his name into the league.”
Still, his teammates won’t let him get a big head about where he’s headed. Morris declared he would have blocked Tatum’s fadeaway if it had been one of the team’s spirited intrasquad scrimmages.
"I would have swiped that,” said Morris. “Left-shoulder fadeaway on one foot. I already knew it was coming.”
Just like everyone in Boston's locker room knows where Tatum is headed as a player. But, like that fadeaway, there’s probably nothing the rest of the league can do to stop it.