In the aftermath of the Celtics’ disastrous Game 5 collapse on Wednesday night, Jayson Tatum was practically serene at the postgame podium. Questions and probes of the Celtics’ mental toughness were easily brushed aside. When asked about the pressure awaiting them in Game 6, Tatum responded with a ” [we’re] not thinking about it like that” and the hint of a smirk.
The questions were valid at the time. The 24-year-old superstar had looked timid for long stretches, and after blowing a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter lead on their home floor, it was a reasonable assumption that fans had seen the last of the Celtics in Boston for the season.
On Friday night, the three-time All-Star responded with a performance that put the young superstar in rarified air. Tatum’s 46 points in the Celtics’ 108-95 win over the Bucks tied him with Paul Pierce for the second-most points in an elimination game in Celtics history. Tatum managed to outlast and outduel two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who put up 44 points of his own, and secured a Game 7 on the TD Garden floor.
It was a historic performance from a player that may one day see his jersey number hanging in the Boston rafters. Before the flip is completely switched to Sunday’s Game 7, it’s worth looking back and appreciating some of the company that Boston’s superstar-in-the-making joined on Friday.
Paul Pierce’s Game 7 against the Cleveland Cavaliers- 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals
If Tatum and Antetokounmpo’s Friday duel reminded fans of any playoff game, it was probably this one. The Celtics long-time captain went toe-to-toe with the face of the NBA, LeBron James in this do-or-die second round matchup. Pierce and James finished with 41 and 45 points respectively, but Pierce was more efficient finishing the game with 13 baskets on 23 shots. The most memorable moment surprisingly came at the free throw line. Pierce’s FT attempt clanked off the back rim, straight up into the air before before navigating it’s way through the bottom of the cylinder.
“The ghost of Red just looking over us,” Pierce joked after the game.
Larry Bird’s Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks- 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Twenty years before Pierce and James’ legendary duel, there was the original battle of small forwards at the Boston Garden. Bird only finished with 34 points to Wilkins’ 47, but the fourth quarter belonged to the Hick from French Lick. Bird scored 20 points in the games’ final frame, only missing one shot, as the Celtics advanced to their third straight Eastern Conference Final.
Bill Russell’s Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers- 1962 NBA Finals
This is the rare playoff performance more impressive for the work on the glass than it is for the total in the points column. Russell scored 30 points but his 40 rebounds might have been even more necessary in the Celtics’ 110-107 win. The MVP of the league also set a record for most rebounds in a quarter with 19. The championship was Boston’s fourth straight in what would ultimately be a run of eight-straight uninterrupted championships.
John Havlicek’s Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks- 1973 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Hondo’s 54 points in the Celtics’ 134-109 win over Atlanta remains the Celtics’ single-game playoff scoring record. The franchise’s all-time leading scorer was effective in every facet of the team’s offensive game, torturing the Hawks with a deadly array of runners, jumpers and floaters.
Sam Jones’ Game 7 against the Cincinnati Royals- 1963 Eastern Division Finals
Tatum’s 46 points are only surpassed in Celtics elimination game annals by this performance from a 10-time NBA champion. The Celtics were in control from beginning to end in their 142-131 over the Royals. The combo-wing’s 47 points were the most in a Game 7 until Kevin Durant surpassed the total last year.