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BOSTON - The most notable part of Jayson Tatum's night came a good 40 minutes after his first career NBA game-winner ripped through the twine.
Sitting at the podium in the Celtics' makeshift interview room, Tatum was detailing his late-game heroics when he was asked what the shot meant to him in the big picture.
"I don't want to get too excited," said Tatum, whose 21-foot stepback with 1.3 seconds remaining lifted Boston to a 104-102 triumph over the visiting Knicks. "The guys I look up to in this league, they do things like this all the time."
That's an answer that confirms Tatum is on a path to stardom. It'd be easy for a 21-year-old to revel in a big-time moment, to get lost in his first NBA game-winner. Instead, Tatum was already looking ahead.
Everything that Tatum has accomplished early in his pro career has been absurd for his age, and yet Tatum never focuses on what he's done. It's always about where he's going and what he can become.
In the near-term future, Tatum is on a path to being an All-Star. Even as his touch around the rim defies him early in the season, he's averaging 22 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.6 steals over 35.7 minutes per game. Tatum is plus-53 in 178 minutes of floor time. The Celtics' net rating with him on the floor is plus-13.9 points per 100 possessions.
What's even more absurd, is that the number plummets to minus-15.0 when Tatum is on the bench. No one else on Boston's roster has a negative net rating when they are off the court.
In the longer-term future, Tatum's ceiling seems limitless based on what he's doing now.
It's telling, too, that Celtics coach Brad Stevens was confident enough to draw up a play in which Tatum was likely to emerge as the primary option. The play the Celtics ran - one that does look quite similar in design to the one in Orlando last season when Tatum misfired and Kyrie Irving stewed - had multiple options but it's pretty clear where the ball is headed from the instant Marcus Smart took it from the ref.
"We only had 4 seconds left so whoever caught it would have to make a play," said Tatum. "That's just what I tried to do."
The key difference with the Orlando play was that Tatum was more of a secondary option that night. Irving had wanted the ball to go to Al Horford with a chance for Irving to get it with a head of steam while rushing from the backcourt. Walker was a decoy on Friday night and an emergency outlet if Smart couldn't get the ball to Tatum or Hayward. As Stevens detailed, the Celtics were confident they'd get a good look, likely with Tatum taking it over a smaller defender.
"We have confidence in [Tatum]. We believe in him," said Stevens. "There were a couple of different options. They had been switching everything the whole game so we knew that on that cross-screen - Gordon [Hayward] for Tatum - they would switch that. So if Tatum had a post-up against a smaller player than Morris, then that would be something we would look for, first and foremost."
Inside the Celtics' locker room, teammates were genuinely thrilled for Tatum.
"That kid is so talented. I'm happy for him, and I'm happy he made that shot," said Kemba Walker, who logged his third straight game of 30+ points and ensured the Celtics had a chance to win it late. "That was a huge big-time shot, and I'm happy we went to him. Hopefully that keeps him confident, that can really just get something going for us. Unbelievable play."
Across the hall in the visitor's locker room, Morris asked a Knicks staffer to take a pair of game-worn Air Jordans that Tatum had signed for him and ensure their safekeeping. While Celtics assistant (and fellow Philly native) Jerome Allen and his family waited patiently in the hallway for Morris to wrap up his media chores, Morris patiently detailed why he's "excited to see how [Tatum's] career pans out."
Sure, Morris also playfully joked how he and twin brother, Markieff, are the only two players capable of locking Tatum down (which Tatum later confirmed he's heard repeatedly but playfully suggested that Morris is, "full of s-") but he turned more serious when asked what's different about Tatum this season.
"Everything. He's more patient, more calm, way more aggressive," said Morris. "He's going to be a great player in this league for a while. And I'm happy to be a part of his career so far."
"It was good to see him get his first [winner]. I wish it could have been [against] somebody else."
The Knicks are certainly not the last ones to see a Tatum winner. He's already looking ahead to the next one, because that's simply what great players do.
"We have someone on the team, Kemba, he's done this many times. Kyrie did it," said Tatum. "It feels good to hit one. Hopefully I hit more in my career. I've got to keep working at it though."
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