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Jayson Tatum realizes stardom when the Celtics need it most

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Jayson Tatum is no longer 19 years old. He is 24 years old and has already lived through a lifetime of NBA playoff games with the Boston Celtics, but none as legendary as Friday’s with his season on the line.

The Celtics suffered a devastating collapse in Game 5, blowing a 14-point lead with 10 minutes remaining to give the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Not only did a stellar season appear before his eyes, but a legitimate chance to win the championship vanished. Boston faced the nightmare of the NBA: an elimination game against Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.

TD Garden was silent. Celtics employees were somber. “We gave it away,” said Jaylen Brown, who walked out of an empty arena alone Wednesday. He added his coach, Ime Udoka: “We missed a golden opportunity.”

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Tatum took a different tact. He could feel the line of questioning at his postgame news conference seeking some admission of defeat, even smiling at times, before assuring Boston: “The series is not over.”

“I could come up here and pout, be sad, and I’m sure there would be a great story about how we were beaten, and I don’t believe us,” he said. “You can’t change what happened. It sucks, for sure, but it’s 3-2, and it’s the first to four. There’s no point in being sad…because that’s not going to do anything for the next game. Always be optimistic and believe in ourselves, believe in the group, that we can win the game on Friday”.

He did so, fully realizing his all-time great potential in a 108-95 win to force Game 7 in Boston on Sunday.

“This was our season on the line,” Tatum said. “Put it all on the floor. That’s the mindset I have, the mindset we all have, so I wasn’t going to regret it. I was just trying to do whatever it took.”

Tatum’s first 3-pointer came less than three minutes into Game 6. His second gave the Celtics a 15-6 lead 66 seconds later. Boston led Friday night for all but 3:42 of the first quarter, when Antetokounmpo made it clear that he wouldn’t make the Celtics’ task any easier than nearly impossible. But Tatum answered all the calls.

“That’s why they pay him a lot of money,” Celtics teammate Marcus Smart told reporters. “That’s it, right there, for moments like that. I was telling him the whole game, ‘Just be you, man,’ and it was.”

He started 4-for-4 from 3-point range. He drove for layups past Jrue Holiday, past Brook Lopez and every other Bucks who dared defend him. He scored 18 points at halftime, matching Antetokounmpo’s bucket for bucket. Tatum added 12 more in the third quarter, the last two of which tickled the thread with a 23-foot step back into wide-eyed Bobby Portis and gave Boston an 82-68 lead in the final seconds. of the third quarter.

Tatum opened his bag, took out the contents and gave Milwaukee everything he had.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum scored 46 points in an elimination Game 6 on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

“I was excited to play today,” he said. “This is a big moment for all of us, for me and for the team, how we would respond. Losing Game 5 was going to make or break us, and I think we showed a lot of toughness and growth, coming out here and getting the win along the way and give us a chance.”

But this was Antetokounmpo’s home, and he was trying to tell his visitors that they were no longer welcome. The reigning Finals MVP scored 32 points through three quarters. He scored his 40 early in the fourth, when his 3-pointer cut Boston’s former 18-point lead to 85-81. It was too reminiscent of his 3 that converted Milwaukee’s fourth-quarter comeback in Game 5 and frankly mirrored his 50-point Game 6 that shut out the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 Finals, until his near-perfect night from the free throw line. line.

Only Tatum withstood Antetokounmpo’s barrage and delivered the knockout. He scored Boston’s next 10 points, half of which he delivered on contested jumpers as the shot clock expired, to push the lead back to 95-87. Milwaukee could not get up from the canvas. Four straight free throws by Tatum extended the lead to 13 in two minutes and gave him 46 points on the night. The Bucks threw in the towel and took out their starters.

“You have to give him credit,” Antetokounmpo said. “He played amazing. He led his team to victory. He made a lot of tough shots. As a team, we were doing a good job of being in front of him, forcing him to shoot contested 3-pointers, contested doubles, but he made them.” , and you have to respect that. He played amazing.”

Only Wilt Chamberlain has scored more points in victory as he faced elimination after the first round before his 25th birthday. Chamberlain scored 50 points against Bill Russell’s Celtics in Game 5 of the 1960 Eastern Conference finals. He did not match the effort in a Game 6 loss two days later. That’s Tatum’s assignment in Game 7 against Antetokounmpo’s Bucks on Sunday. A title shot and greatness await on the other side.

And Tatum is bringing his same reassuring demeanor home to Boston.

“I’m looking forward to it, really,” he said some 36 hours before kick-off. “Just to win this game and give us a chance to come back, that’s all. It’s do or die, and it’s going to be fun. This is supposed to be fun. It’s basketball. The biggest moments, the biggest stage and when it boils down I just go out and have fun.”

Tatum went toe-to-toe with LeBron James as a rookie in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals. He scored 50 points off Kevin Durant in last season’s playoffs and swept the Brooklyn Nets this year. And he just beat Giannis Antetokounmpo in an elimination game on the road. He has given the top three players of his generation everything they could handle. Jayson Tatum is no longer 19. He is an NBA superstar.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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