As the final horn sounded and the victory secured, Jayson Tatum let out a defiant fist-pump which was one of the few times all night the cerebral star of the Boston Celtics let his feelings be known.
It was the biggest game of Tatum’s career, a game that in many ways would better define who he is and where he stands among the NBA’s top-tier talent.
While he has been a man of few words when it comes to the roller coaster of a series he and the Celtics were riding against the defending NBA champions, Tatum’s game spoke volumes when it mattered most.
And because of that, the Celtics now find themselves back in the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in the last four years after a 92-87 Game 7 win over the Raptors.
It was in many ways the kind of game we all anticipated a winner-takes-all Game 7 would look like.
And when the dust finally settled, one player who would stand head and shoulders above all others on this all-important day.
That player was Tatum.
He would finish the game with a fourth straight double-double, of 29 points and 12 rebounds.
The 22-year-old is showing that he can also get his teammates involved as well, tacking on another seven assists.
And those numbers came against an elite Toronto defense which focused heavily on trying to get the ball out of his hands as much as possible with a wide range of defenses that constantly kept changing.
“He just has a great feel for the game,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “In this series, he saw everything you could possibly see. He’s done a great job of handling it.”
He grabbed defensive rebounds.
Heck, he even grabbed a last-second offensive rebound off Grant Williams’ missed free throws.
Tatum was everywhere, doing everything required for Boston to finally put the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors away.
And the numbers he posted weren’t just good enough for Boston to get the win.
They were historically good, too.
Tatum became the second-youngest player to tally at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a playoff Game 7.
The only one to do it younger than Tatum?
That would be Tatum’s basketball idol, the late Kobe Bryant.
And it’s only fitting that Tatum leads Boston to the Conference finals by accomplishing a feat that adds another level of connectivity to him and Bryant.
Because the one thing that many have wondered about Tatum, is whether he has the fiery temperament to be more than just a great player but a great leader of men.
And as you watch him methodically slice and dice up the best players more consistently, it takes performances like what we saw in Game 7 on Friday night to realize that Tatum’s game has many, many levels left to be reached … and that’s pretty damn scary considering how good a player he is right now.
But what really stood out about Tatum in Game 7 wasn’t the stats as much as it was the intangibles such as getting knocked to the ground and getting back up.
Reading a double-team coming before it arrives, and making the “hockey assist” to get an easy bucket.
Or the cool, calm and collected demeanor he played with the entire game, whether the Celtics were rolling along or were trying to get on the comeback trail after falling behind.
And while Tatum’s talent stands out when you watch him play, he understands that greatness for him can’t be measured in points, rebounds and assists.
When the final horn sounded Friday night and the Celtics were moving on to the next round of play and his performance had a lot to do with that success … that is how you build towards greatness which is something Tatum has never been shy or coy about wanting for himself or the Celtics.
“If you want to achieve something great, it’s not going to be easy,” Tatum said following the game.