Once you delve through the plethora of potential strategies and philosophies, there is one concrete way NBA teams win: have your stars perform at a star level.
Now, you could say this blanket statement for practically every sport, but it is perhaps most prevalent in the NBA, a league well-renowned for its “super team” mantra that has made its presence known more than once over the past several decades at the minimum.
The need to win only becomes that much more difficult should you lack the significant star power.
Or if your team is marred with injuries to said stars.
Such was the case for the Boston Celtics heading into their play-in tournament bout against the Washington Wizards on May 18. Without the likes of Jaylen Brown (wrist), Boston’s formidability on the boards and all over the offensive zone was significantly reduced – Brown’s 6.0 total rebounds and 24.7 points per game ranked fourth and second on the team, respectively. While Washington certainly had their defensive issues, trading off baskets against the triple-double machine known as Russel Westbrook would be that much more difficult without one of your premier scorers trotting up and down the court.
As the NBA saying would seem to go, without stars, your chance to win was greatly diminished.
That is, if one of your other stars didn’t step up.
And in a big way.
Of course, Jayson Tatum was certainly known as a bucket producer heading into the game. Dating back to his college days with the Duke Blue Devils, the forward was known to tally double-digit totals in practically every contest he played in. The trend certainly held true after the Celtics drafted him third overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. Through his first three years of NBA action (2017-18-2019-20), Tatum averaged 17.3 points per game and compiled a 45.7 Field Goal Percentage (FG%), 40.1 3-Point Field Goal Percentage (3P%) and 82.9 Free Throw Percentage through 225 games played (225 GS).
In 64 regular season games during the 2020-21 season, the 23-year-old continued to show his shooting improvements. While his .386 3P% was a slight downgrade from his career average totals up to that point, his .459 FG%, 86.8 FT% and 26.4 points per game averages were all career-highs.
Even still, Tatum’s banner season was not enough to put Boston in a situation that did not require them to play their way into the postseason. And so, they did battle against Washington in what was a game that would determine whether they’d clinch their postseason bid or must play another game.
Challenge accepted, and challenge certainly conquered.
At least, that was what Tatum was probably thinking, as he scored 50 points on 44% shooting from the floor (14-32), 42% shooting from downtown (5-12) and 100% shooting from the line (17-17).
When looking at Tatum’s performance compared to all regular season games he has played in, it certainly stands out, as Tatum scored more points in only two other regular season games (53 on Apr. 9, 2021 against Minnesota and 60 on Apr. 30, 2021 against San Antonio).
Should you consider Tatum’s play-in game to count as a postseason matchup, his feat only becomes that much more impressive. To start, his performance is a career-high in regard to point totals (his previous career-high in the postseason was 34 on Sep. 1, 2020 against the Toronto Raptors).
Let’s take it a step further. In Boston’s entire postseason history, only five other players have ever accounted for 50 or more points during a postseason game: Bob Cousy (50 on Mar. 21, 1953 against the Syracuse Nationals), Sam Jones (51 on Mar. 28, 1967 against the New York Knicks), John Havlicek (54 on Apr. 1, 1973 against the Atlanta Hawks), Ray Allen (51 on Apr. 30, 2009 against the Chicago Bulls) and Isaiah Thomas (53 on May 2, 2017 against the Wizards). Of the six including Tatum, however, the latter is the youngest. In terms of the 42 times an NBA player has compiled 50 or more points in a postseason game, Tatum (23 years, 76 days) was the third youngest to do it, behind only Rick Barry (23 years, 21 days in 1967) and Michael Jordan (23 years, 62 days in 1986).
Whether you consider the play-in game a postseason game is completely open to interpretation, but here is a fact – without Tatum’s performance on Tuesday, Boston would have had a more difficult time upending the Wizards.
In the NBA world, you win when your stars perform up to their expectations or exceed them.
Luckily for Boston, Tatum provided just that.