Kyrie Remains Boston's Star, but 21-Year-Old Jayson Tatum Controls Celtics' Fate

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 18, 2019

Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum high fives with Kyrie Irving during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers Friday, March 29, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Winslow Townson/Associated Press

As much as Uncle Drew dazzles in the regular season, Playoff Kyrie Irving ups the ante from every angle.

Irving did Irving things early and often during the Boston Celtics' Game 2 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday. The Shamrocks needed every last one of them, as the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers were typically quicker to the basketball, flowed better on offense and played with relentlessness on the other end.

For 47 minutes, it seemed Irving and the Pacers would trade body blows until the final whistle. Then Jayson Tatum happened.

The 21-year-old owned the final minute. His fingerprints were found on eight of the 10 points scored in that stretch, which turned a 91-89 Boston deficit into a 99-91 win for the preseason favorite now looming as the Eastern Conference's biggest wild card.

Tatum's corner triple off a delicious dime from Jaylen Brown gave the Celtics a 92-91 advantage with 50.8 seconds remaining. The next time down, he fed a cutting Gordon Hayward to push Boston's lead to 94-91. One horrifically timed Pacers miscue later—Wesley Matthews' inbounds pass went out of bounds—Tatum sealed the victory by hammering home an and-1 flush.

"He made the right plays," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens succinctly said of Tatum.

That's coach speak for: "We don't win this game without him." And the Celtics definitely don't.

They followed Irving's lead, but the six-time All-Star could only do so much. His jaw-dropping stat line of 37 points, seven assists and six rebounds barely budged in the final minute, with only one defensive board added to his tally.

In other words, even with Irving at—or very close to—his best, Boston couldn't shake loose of the scrappy but starless squad. Three different starters scored in single digits, including Al Horford, who powered through illness but supplied just four points in 37 minutes. The second unit managed only 21 points on 24 shots, and that's with Hayward notching 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field.

The Celtics never hit their stride until Tatum did. And if Boston is going to shake off a season of frustrating inconsistency and never-quite-right chemistry to make the lengthy playoff push so many envisioned, he must continue to serve as a big part of the formula.

Irving lives for this time of year. We know that already. The Celtics' support scorers are shaky from one game to the next. That's not new information.

But Tatum can be the exception when he plays to his potential. We should know that already, too.

No player's stock saw a bigger jump during last year's postseason. Thrust into the spotlight by injuries to Irving and Hayward, Tatum—barely a month removed from his 20th birthday when those playoffs began—calmly grabbed the keys to this offense and had the most playoff points for a team that fell one win shy of the NBA Finals.

"Circumstances don't affect him," Stevens told Sopan Deb of the New York Times. "First game of the season, he's unaffected by the jitters that everybody has. Seventh game of a playoff series? Unaffected. At least, he shows himself to be unaffected, and he can thrive in that environment."

Young as Tatum is, Wednesday was already the 21st postseason outing of his career. Some may argue that's not enough time to form a playoff reputation. Maybe they're right.

But that wouldn't make the early returns on his 2019 postseason any less encouraging. Through two games, he's supplied 41 points on 54.8 percent shooting and striped six of his nine long-distance looks.

"I just get really excited," Tatum said. "It's the best time of the year."

Behind that mentality, the Celtics could be transforming before our eyes.

They'll always be stingy on defense while Stevens calls the shots. They'll always have an isolation wizard while Irving rocks green and white.

But this isn't a championship-caliber offense without Tatum resembling—or, better yet, outperforming—the breakout star we saw last season.

Assuming Boston disposes of Indiana, it likely has a showdown waiting with the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and MVP contender Giannis Antetokounmpo. Find a way out of that series, and it might go head-to-head with the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers, both multi-star teams.

Survive the Eastern Conference gauntlet, and it's on to face the Golden State Warriors, James Harden's Houston Rockets or whatever the Wild West sends to the championship round.

The Celtics aren't making that trek without Tatum at his best. And truth be told, that only speaks to a portion of his importance to the organization.

If he doesn't stick on the Celtics roster, it's because he's the trump card in Anthony Davis trade talks, and adding the Brow this summer would exponentially increase the odds of re-signing Irving. But failing that, Tatum's development is still key to Boston's future.

Maybe he takes such a seismic leap this postseason that he compels Irving to stay put even without a Davis deal. Or if Irving indeed exits, the franchise may feel its next centerpiece is already in place.

Last postseason, Tatum put himself on the map with an eye-opening run. This time around, he could be putting the Celtics back into the championship conversation.

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