On a March Sunday afternoon, 30 years ago, Larry Bird had his last great performance at the Boston Garden.
With Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers in town, a national TV audience watched the 35-year-old legend – back and Achilles screaming – pick apart the eventual Western Conference champions to the tune of 49 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists in a double-overtime Celtics victory.
The game featured all the classic late-career Bird tricks. He launched jumpers from seemingly every square of parquet floor and twisted past defenders for scoop shots and running hooks. He pulled down caroms from the defensive glass he seemingly had no business getting. He paused to read the defense, feinted this way and that, before finding Dee Brown on a baseline cut or working the give-and-go with Reggie Lewis.
The cherry on top was a game-tying three at the end of regulation, with the veteran using every last centimeter of his dwindling vertical to lunge past Drexler and fling the ball toward the basket before it banged through that jumpy old Garden rim.
The Celtics raised fellow Boston legend Kevin Garnett’s number five to the TD Garden rafters over the weekend – another sentimental tribute in what has been a nostalgia-tinged 75th anniversary campaign for the NBA. But prior to opening tip, I found myself less awash in the ceremonial warm and fuzzies and more excited to see what Jayson Tatum could pull off against the visiting Luka Dončić and the Mavericks.
Following Tatum’s truly divine 54-point Sunday afternoon Garden party with Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets the previous weekend, I had the anticipation of the kid who used to bury his elbows in the living room rug, prop his hands under his chin and watch Bird, Lewis and the Chief flash across the Magnavox all those years ago.
This Sunday, it was my three-year-old, eyes drifting from his tower of Legos and reflecting green images from the flat screen.
No, buddy, the Patriots play football. The Celtics are the basketball team. And Jayson Tatum is the man.
The game itself was a dud. The C’s lost by three, with Tatum – double-teamed all game by Jason Kidd’s disciplined Mavs D – clearly pressing before Hall of Fame company. The kid shot 7-for-23 – a departure from the weekend, to say the least.
And yet, all those feelings headed into the contest speak to the raft of goodwill the freshly minted 24-year-old has generated on this recent Boston run. Even with Sunday’s loss, the Celtics are 18-4 over the past seven weeks, and we’re tuning in to watch Tatum do Larry Bird stuff. Not All-Star stuff. Superstar stuff. When it’s not just the home crowd chanting “MVP,” it’s a legitimate conversation.
With all due respect to Paul Pierce, Tatum could be the best pure shot maker the Celtics have had since Bird.
He’s had his share of big moments before, even tying Bird’s single-game franchise record of 60 points (albeit in OT) against San Antonio last season. But the calendar flip to 2022 has sharpened the focus on Tatum as the total package.
There’s that singular ability to score the basketball with a confidence that isn’t irrational. His realization that elite shooting must be paired with a penchant for attacking the rim has dovetailed nicely with the debut of Tatum-as-distributor, with the fifth-year forward averaging five assists a night over the past couple of months.
In short, Tatum’s already-honed abilities and exploding basketball IQ have made him a matchup nightmare.
And much like Bird over Drexler (41 points) back in ‘92, Tatum has outshone his superstar counterparts in recent weeks.
Ja Morant scored 30 in the second half at the Garden a couple of weeks back. But it was Tatum – with 21 in the fourth quarter – who submitted not only a great individual effort, but won the game for his team. Before that, he dropped 33 as the Green rallied back to dispatch Trae Young and the Hawks. And then, there was the duel with Durant – how can a matchup feel one-sided when the other guy scores 37 points?
And to think, we wanted to blow this team up.
Much like those early ’90s Celtics – when a healthy Bird got going with Parish, McHale, Lewis, and an energetic supporting cast – these Celtics have been killing it of late. Their defense is top flight. The emergence of the offense has galvanized a fan base who suffered through the lethargy and doubts of months of .500 basketball from a team we thought was capable of more.
The early 90s Celtics also weren’t getting past the Bulls. This year’s model? Maybe they’re title contenders. Maybe not. They’ve been mostly healthy in recent weeks, and one has to wonder if a crack in Ime Udoka’s tight rotation could turn into a New England March pothole that sends this team spinning off the road.
But I don’t think so. In a year when the rest of the Eastern Conference has largely failed to grab the brass ring, the Celtics have as good a shot as anybody – even conference-leading Miami or defending champion Milwaukee.
It’s Udoka’s growth as a tactician. The contributions up and down the scorecard. It’s Jaylen Brown – who’s had some pretty big nights of his own.
And we’ve reached a point where having Tatum in the lineup gives you a puncher’s chance.
I can’t wait to see him take on Steph Curry Wednesday night.
Kevin Garnett honored with jersey retirement at TD Garden
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Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.