It feels life a lifetime ago considering the pandemic that immediately enveloped us all. But it was just 21 months ago that Jayson Tatum scored 41 points in a national TV showdown with the Lakers that left LeBron James gushing about Boston’s young superstar in the aftermath of their duel.
It was the moment that Tatum turned the corner from being a first-time All-Star to a potential future face of the league. An awful lot has happened since then: Boston’s bubble run, an All-NBA berth, a $163 million contract extension, and a torrid finish to the 2020-21 season in which he tied Larry Bird’s single-game franchise scoring record amid a barrage of 50-plus-point scoring nights.
But there have also been some bumps along the way for Tatum. He struggled after a bout with COVID last season, the Celtics fell woefully short of lofty expectations, and, after failing to repeat for All-NBA, Tatum lost a $32.6 million escalation in his rookie extension.
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Tatum has been navigating an early season shooting slump to open the 2021-22 campaign. But a visit from James (who is expected to return from a two-week absence) and the Lakers could provide the additional spark that Tatum has been waiting for.
"I think [the Celtics vs. Lakers] game is special," said Tatum. "Obviously, everyone knows the history between the two franchises and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of that going on five years now. And understanding who they have on their team, especially somebody like LeBron that is one of the best to play this game.
"So, obviously, as a kid, it’s the matchups that you dreamed about and you don’t take for granted when you get the opportunity because as a competitor, you love games and you love moments like that."
In the aftermath of Tatum's big day in February 2020, James went on Instagram and wrote, "that boi … is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM." Tatum played with a different swagger in the aftermath.
James being on the opposite sideline Friday night at TD Garden will be a firm reminder for Tatum of how true superstar players impact the game. While Tatum’s shot has defied him this season, the bigger challenge in his desired ascension to one of the league’s elite is figuring out how to make everyone around him better and impacting the game even when shots don’t fall.
If the Celtics get Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams back on the floor on Friday night -- both were listed as questionable on Thursday -- it could help take some stress off Tatum. Boston has struggled mightily on offense this season and teams are loading up on Tatum while challenging others to make shots. Neither Tatum nor his teammates have consistently made defenses pay for that.
Tatum donned Kobe Bryant’s No. 24 Lakers uniform this summer while recreating an iconic moment as part of the league’s 75th anniversary celebration. Tatum’s appreciation of Bryant is well documented. There’s something about the yellow and purple that tend to give Tatum a jolt.
“I felt like a kid putting that jersey on because obviously the late great Kobe Bryant, that was my favorite player,” said Tatum. “Obviously, everyone knows I loved the Lakers back then. Not the case now. But I kind of felt like a kid in that moment. Because that’s what I used to do. I used to wear that jersey and run around the house and try to be like him. So I felt like a kid again when I did that.”
Friday night is an opportunity for Tatum to move past his early struggles and embrace the stage. As the Celtics limp home from a 1-2 road trip and sit a game below .500 overall, the next month could dictate the path of the 2021-22 season.
The Celtics need Tatum to take the next step in his development and carry an offense thin on weapons. He’s routinely embraced the biggest stage and saved some of his finest moments for when players like Kevin Durant or Bradley Beal are on the opposite side of the floor.
Friday is another chance for Tatum to show he’s capable taking that next step, and reaffirm himself as one the league’s brightest young stars.