BOSTON — When Jayson Tatum scored another three-pointer midway through the third quarter on Sunday — en route to besting the Philadelphia 76ers alone in that quarter — he addressed the rowdy Boston crowd and let out a cathartic yell.
“That’s my ass,” he said.
Tatum scored 51 points, the most in Game 7 in NBA history, and led the Celtics to a 112-88 victory and entry into the Eastern Conference Finals. Tatum broke the record set two weeks ago by Stephen Curry, who scored 50 points in Game 7 of the Golden State Warriors’ first-round series against the Sacramento Kings.
Tatum caught 17 of 28 off the field and added 13 rebounds and five assists, becoming the fifth player in NBA history with at least 50-10-5 in a playoff game.
“It’s a movie,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “It’s a big movie. The ability to just sit back, eat popcorn and watch.”
After battling through one of the worst shooting nights of his career in Game 6, Tatum responded with one of the best performances in franchise history. He scored or assisted in Game 7 with 62 points, surpassing Sixers star duo Joel Embiid (15 points) and James Harden (nine points) who scored or assisted for 44 points combined.
Tatum scored all 51 points in halffield against five different defensemen, including 17 points against Embiid, the 2023 NBA MVP, according to ESPN tracking data. Tatum finished fourth in voting for the award this season, his best result career, but at the end of the game the sold-out crowd at TD Garden greeted him with shouts of “MVP”.
Before the game, Tatum called Sunday a chance for the Celtics to redeem themselves after being beaten in their last game in Boston and receiving boos from the home crowd. Tatum got off to a terrible start in Game 6, shooting 1 for 13 in the first three quarters before things heated up late.
“I was really excited at the moment to be able to come out and play today,” Tatum said after Sunday’s game. “It was definitely clear to me that I had played as badly as I could for 42, 43 minutes. As the saying goes, ‘It’s all uphill from here.’”
It was clear by the start of Game 7 he was ready to react. Tatum scored 25 points in the first half after a combined 18 points in the first half of games 4, 5 and 6.
“Going to Game 6 — that sounds crazy, I’ve been locked in too much,” Tatum said. “I was too tight. I’ve been too much in my head thinking about what I need to do. How many points do I have to get. It’s a big moment.”
“And today I was more myself. Before the game I was relaxed, laughing and joking. Then I play my best when I’m having fun. I was just trying not to think about the pressure of what everyone is going to say. Easy.” Focus on the game and having fun.
Still, the Sixers led after the first quarter and were down 55-52 at halftime and stayed in the game despite their two stars struggling. Then Boston sped past Philadelphia in the third quarter, beating the Sixers 33-10 to open the game. Tatum scored 17 points in the third quarter alone, nearly doubling the Sixers’ total points and putting the game out of reach.
When asked if he’d seen a performance like Tatum’s before in the playoffs, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said he could only think of one.
“I saw one. And unfortunately he was in that building,” Rivers said. “And it was LeBron [James]. This is the only time I’ve seen such a performance live and I’m glad I didn’t see many. … [Tatum was] unbelievable.”
The Celtics have reached the Conference Finals for the second straight season and fifth time in the past seven seasons.
“A team we’re very familiar with,” Tatum said of the game against Miami. “A very well-trained team, they compete with the best, play hard. They defend, they make plays, and they find a way to win games. It will be fun; it’s going to be very competitive and I’m looking forward to it.
The Celtics bounced back from a 3-2 streak deficit to end the streak with back-to-back wins. It mirrored the situation the Celtics faced in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, when Boston made it back to the conference finals from a 3-2 deficit against Milwaukee.
According to an investigation by ESPN’s Stats & Information, the Celtics have now racked up seven straight wins while trailing 3-2, more than any team in NBA history.
“You always go into a series expecting how it’s going to go, and that’s just not how the playoffs are,” said Joe Mazzulla, Celtics freshman coach. “We’ve only mastered the ups and downs of a series. We were never too emotionally high and emotionally never too low. We had tough times, but we were able to maintain our emotional connection, which I think is important in the playoffs.”
After losing the NBA Finals last season, the Celtics are relying on their experience from that playoff run to move forward this season. The slogan ‘unfinished business’ was their motto throughout the year and was prominently displayed on the video board prior to Game 7.
With the conference’s other top seeds eliminated, the Celtics opened as -500 favorites to beat the Heat (+380) at Caesars Sportsbook. And as the final seconds of the fourth quarter ticked by, Boston fans had already turned their attention to the next task ahead and were chanting “Beat the Heat.”
“We really stuck together and stayed together,” said Celtics center Al Horford. “[The Sixers are] a really good team. This could easily have been a conference finals, or if they were on the other side it could have been a finals game. You are such a good team. And you have to give them credit. You are a good team. A team had to win and we just about made it.”