The Boston Celtics will play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. This became official after Boston beat the Washington Wizards in the play-in tournament last night by the score of 118-110. The biggest reason they did so? The play of Jayson Tatum. The budding superstar scored 50 points in what was essentially a must-win game for his team. He looked for his shot on every possession and found it. Even the double- and triple-teams that came in the fourth quarter did not phase him.
Fifty points in the biggest game of the year to that point. It was a ridiculous performance and one we've grown used to seeing from the 23-year-old forward; it was his third 50-point outing of the year and all came after the All-Star break. These Celtics are broken and hobbled after a brutal year of injuries. They're missing Jaylen Brown for the duration, breakout center Robert Williams missed the second half last night with turf toe, and Marcus Smart twisted his ankle. They needed every bit of Tatum's star play to get this far.
They will need even more against the Nets. The Celtics lost every matchup with Brooklyn this season, and exactly zero of those three games featured all three of the Nets' stars. Tatum will have to be the best player on the floor, not just on his team, for Boston to even have a sliver of a chance. That, of course, is a very tall task when going up against Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden.
The Celtics have no chance at an upset. Nobody should feel bad about that. As TBL's Celtics guy, I certainly do not. This is a terrible season that has seen every fan favorite get hurt or catch COVID and I look forward to an offseason of rest and recovery for these guys. A deep playoff run was always a long shot after Brown went down, and drawing a healthy Brooklyn in the first round was essentially the nail in the coffin.
But you know what? Boston can definitely still make it an interesting series. It doesn't have to be a four-game sweep filled with blowouts as the rest of the NBA cowers in fear at the sheer starpower of the Brooklyn Big 3. How do they keep it close? Feed Tatum. As many shots as possible.
Tatum had to take 32 shots to get to 50 last night, making 14 of those attempts. It was not an efficient scoring night. He also benefitted from a pretty generous whistle, going 17-of-17 from the line. He should take that many in however many games the playoff series will go. What does Boston have to lose?
As good as he is, Tatum is still prone to a stinker every now and again. He scored 99 points over the course of two games in three days against the Spurs and Trail Blazers earlier this month and then went 3-of-15 for nine points against the Bulls. He has not quite reached that upper echelon of scoring where he can put up points efficiently and in bunches. It's usually one or the other. The fact that he has nights where he can do both is extraordinarily impressive at this point in his career, but going from great to one of the best is a leap that takes even elite players time.
All that is to say that feeding Tatum the rock is not a one-way ticket to a series win. But it will make it more interesting. Giving Tatum 30 shots a game is preferable to seeing Smart brick six out of 10 three-point attempts or hoping that rookie Aaron Nesmith can find a rhythm.
In the long-term, the Celtics will live and die by Jayson Tatum. Brown is a great No. 2 and had a breakout scoring season this year. But Tatum is the No. 1. He already has plenty of playoff experience, but he hasn't had one quite like this, where he really is the only path to victory. Kemba Walker has been excellent of late but his size doesn't allow him to be a difference-maker over the course of seven games like Tatum can be.
There is no downside to letting Tatum chuck for however many games they have left this season. So let's make it happen. Whether he goes 8-for-33 or 15-of-29, it will help him grow. The clock is ticking on this season. Let's see how far Tatum can carry this worn-down squad.