Three hundred fifty-eight days.
That’s how long it’s been since Jayson Tatum erupted for 51 points in a matinee win over the Washington Wizards that lit both his own fuse and that of the Boston Celtics before a furious second-half surge that rocketed the Celtics straight to the NBA Finals.
One week shy of a full year, Tatum again stacked up 51 points during a matinee Monday in Charlotte. If this was the precursor to another second-half launch then the NBA better brace itself.
Before Tatum scored 51 in Washington last year, the Celtics were a sub-.500 team simply trying to claw their way up from play-in territory. Boston went 28-7 the rest of the way with Tatum stacking up multiple Player of the Month honors while averaging 29.1 points per game and shooting 50.3 percent from the floor, 40.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, and 86.9 percent at the free-throw line. Tatum was a staggering +522 in plus/minus over his last 33 games of the 2021-22 regular season.
So what happens after Tatum’s outburst in Charlotte?
Tatum was already averaging 31.1 points per game on 47.1/35.2/86.7 shooting splits. He’s lingered near the top of MVP betting odds for much of the past two months with the Celtics owning the best record in basketball.
If Monday’s performance against the Hornets fuels Tatum’s efficiency even a little beyond what we’ve seen to this point, it could be historic. He’s already on pace to be the first Celtics player to average better than 30 points per game. All this despite shooting well below his career 3-point percentage (37.7) this year.
Individual honors are not Tatum’s priority but he hasn’t shied away from admitting that being in the MVP conversation matters. It’s one thing to be part of that chatter in November and December when everything is insanely premature.
But, quietly, we’re on the back nine of the 2022-23 season and it sure feels like it’ll be Tatum, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic walking together in the final pairing. The West stars are putting up ridiculous individual numbers and Tatum’s road map hinges heavily on Boston’s team success.
Throwing in a loud 51-point effort doesn’t hurt, either. The Celtics were in danger of letting a sleepy Monday matinee slip away and needed to bring Tatum back early in the fourth quarter after the Hornets rallied to make it a one-possession game. That gave Tatum enough time to score 18 final-quarter points, culminating with back-to-back 3-pointers for his seventh career 50-point game (and, yes, we’re including the play-in game even if the league, ridiculously, does not).
It’s been suggested that Tatum’s MVP case could be hindered by the amount of talent around him, including having a second scoring star like Jaylen Brown. But on a night when his team needed a jolt while playing without the injured Brown, Tatum was able to carry the Celtics to the finish line in Charlotte.
Tatum joked after Monday’s game that he “needed that one,” because it had been so long since his last 50-point game. For the record, he scored 54 points against the Nets on March 6, 2022. That was 316 days ago.
Tatum lamented finishing on 49 points earlier this season during a win over the Heat. He said NBA legend Jamal Crawford texted him in the aftermath and implored him to keep shooting any time he was knocking on 50’s door. Tatum listened on Monday.
We still think it showed maturation to wave off Al Horford when the veteran went to set a screen for Tatum in the final seconds of that win over Miami. Tatum was saying, in that moment, that there are bigger goals, especially his repeatedly stated desire to get back to the NBA Finals.
Monday showed that you can do both. That you can put up a bundle of points and keep the focus on winning. That Tatum scored 51 points on just 23 shot attempts shows just how efficient he can be.
Maybe it was all the Duke jerseys in the North Carolina crowd. Tatum connected on 7 of 12 3-point attempts. That’s tied for his second-most makes this season trailing only that 49-point night against Miami.
Tatum hitting 3-point shots is simply a Boston cheat code. The Celtics are now 10-0 this season when he makes five 3-pointers or more in a game. The Celtics are 15-3 when he shoots 37.5 percent or better on 3-pointers.
The Celtics have a team-best offensive rating of 119.8 in Tatum’s 1,582 minutes on the court. Boston morphs from an elite +9.4 net rating during Tatum’s floor time to a minus-0.5 net rating in the 598 minutes without him.
And it’s scary to think how those numbers might look if Monday was just his annual visit to the second-half launchpad.