After being largely ineffective on the attacking side in both games at Barclays Center, Jayson Tatum erupted in Game 3 as the stage returned to TD Garden as he finished the Celtics’ victory with a record 50 points to push the home team on top. On the other side, it was Kevin Durant and James Harden who paced the Nets offensively as Kyrie Irving struggled on his return to Boston, shooting just 6-17 from the field.
With the victory, the Celtics gave themselves a little life in this best-of-seven series by avoiding falling into a 3-0 hole against the favored Nets. These two teams will meet on Sunday evening with the opening forecast scheduled for 7 p.m. on TNT.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
1. Tatum offers historic performance
There were a number of reasons the Celtics were down 2-0 going into this game, including the fact that the Nets have three of the top scorers of this generation. But another key factor in the Celtics’ resounding losses in Brooklyn was that Jayson Tatum was virtually non-existent.
He scored 31 points in Games 1 and 2 combined and missed most of the second half of Game 2 after being stung in the eye by Kevin Durant. Already without Jaylen Brown, who is out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery, the Celtics really couldn’t afford Tatum’s average performances, let alone the brutal performances he had to start the series.
Friday night, however, Tatum reversed the script and delivered in a major way. He was neither average, nor good, nor even really good. He was amazing. Shooting an excellent 16 for 30 from the field, Tatum tallied 50 points and added six rebounds and seven assists for good measure. He became the third youngest player in NBA history to field 50 in a playoff game – just behind Michael Jordan and Jerry West – and the sixth Celtics player to accomplish that feat.
Inside, outside, on the free throw line, he was doing it all in Game 3 and the Nets had no response. The Celtics continuously manipulated the Nets’ defense to match smaller defenders with Tatum, and he shot or fouled. And when Durant tried his hand at the end of the match, Tatum threw the clutch jumper directly into his face to seal the victory.
It was just a special display from one of the best young players in the game. The Celtics have had a tough season, but with Tatum in the lead, they still have a bright future.
2. Harden and Durant combine for 80, but Irving struggles
Tatum’s 50 points will be the headline in this game, and for good reason. But he wasn’t the only star to pull through in this game. James Harden and Kevin Durant were impressive on their own, as they combined 80 points, 16 rebounds and 11 of 24-for-42 assists on the field.
The Celtics, like everyone else, didn’t have an answer for any of them. Whether it was Durant’s midrange jumpers or Harden’s dynamic isolation streaks, these two were getting all the shots they wanted. Most nights it would have been enough to win, but not this time. It’s mostly because of Tatum, but it’s also because Kyrie Irving had a rough night.
Irving’s return to Boston is always notable, and he was greeted with loud boos throughout the game. Only he’ll know if it had anything to do with his unusually poor outing, but the point is, he had his worst game of the series. He finished with 16 of 6 for 17 points from the field and only had two assists. Put simply, it’s bad news for the Nets if Tristan Thompson defeats Irving.
3. Thompson comes to play
Tristan Thompson’s first season with the Celtics has not been a memorable one. He’s had two runs on the sidelines due to COVID-19 protocols, was in and out of starting line-up in points and just didn’t have the kind of impact the Celtics were hoping for when they did. signed in free agency.
In Game 3, however, we saw the Thompson who was such an important part of the Cavaliers’ playoffs a few years ago. He gave the Celtics much needed strength and energy, and was one of the most impactful players on the pitch all night. At various times, he was just out to top the Nets and finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds, including nine of the offensive variety.
With Thompson in the lead, the Celtics cleared the glass and got a crucial second-chance points advantage: 13-5. While second chance points are always important, they are even more important against the Nets. On the one hand, they help you follow them into the scoring department, and two, they keep their elite scorers from burning out in transition.