Jayson Tatum’s 50-point night takes focus off Kyrie Irving’s return, lifts Boston Celtics in Game 3

Boston forward Jayson Tatum scored a career-high 51 points in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, helping the Celtics cap their comeback from a 23-point deficit and pull even with the Cleveland Cavaliers in their series.

The Boston Celtics’ young prospect Jayson Tatum turned in a career game in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, scoring 50 points while being the focus of attention on the TD Garden court. Tatum is the story in the 2017 postseason: an unheralded 18-year-old rookie who became the focal point of a Celtics team that overcame a 2-1 deficit to the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the Eastern Conference crown.

For Jayson Tatum, the key to his success has been figuring out how to play on a nightly basis in a way that doesn’t collide with Kyrie Irving’s return. Over 24 minutes in Wednesday’s Game 3, Tatum scored a career-high 50 points, shooting 20-of-26 from the field, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range, with 10 rebounds, four steals, four assists and three blocks.. Read more about kyrie irving celtics and let us know what you think.1:16 AM ET

Tim Bontemps

BOSTON – Every one of the 4,789 fans who entered TD Garden Friday night was ready to boo Kyrie Irving to a raspy halt. But after the Boston Celtics’ stunning 125-119 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs, those same fans did something different: They were scanning Jason Tatum’s name.

Tatum scored 50 points for the second game in a row in the building, along with six rebounds and seven assists in 41 minutes. An impressive performance, enough to beat his former teammate Irving, as well as former Brooklyn MVPs Kevin Durant and James Harden, and get the Celtics back into this series.

It’s just one of those nights, Tatum said. They try at all costs to defend their position and win.

Sometimes these nights are necessary.

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Given that Tatum has scored at least 50 points four times in two months, when he has never done so in his four-year NBA career, maybe he can honestly say it was just one of those nights and believe it.

Few players can say they can keep up and stay ahead of Harden and Durant. Tatum did all that, including the shot that led to his 50 points – a jumper over Durant with 41.8 seconds left that gave Boston a seven-point lead and all but guaranteed the Celtics comeback in this series.

Just make the play, said Tatum, who had scored just 31 points in the first two games, both losses against the Celtics, before Friday night and left Game 2 in the third quarter after Durant accidentally hit him in the eye. Sure, I know I’ve done things, but I’ve just been trying to see where help comes in, where someone comes in, find an open person. You just have to make the right choice in these situations.

While the post-game attention was on Tatum’s performance, all eyes before the game were on Irving, who made his first appearance in the building in front of Boston fans since leaving the Celtics on a free agent contract two years ago. He first entered the field just over eight minutes before Friday night’s pregame and immediately received a chorus of boos from the several thousand fans in attendance at the 25 percent capacity TD Garden, which will be expanded for Sunday’s fourth game.

Yes, we expect more people on Sunday, Irving said. I’m glad this is a good start to see what Wednesday will be like and I look forward to the challenge.

Although that booing quickly subsided, Irving was loudly booed again during player introductions when his name was called second-to-last, ahead of Durant and behind Harden.

Every time he touched the ball during a game, the same thing happened: A standing ovation erupted after every missed shot by Irving.

It’s basketball, Irving said. I have been in many environments in my life. So like I said, for now it’s just the nature of basketball, nothing special. I don’t mind. I’m going to prepare with the team tomorrow and get ready for Sunday, but I want it to be pure basketball.

Irving had a fantastic season for Brooklyn, becoming one of only seven players to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line all season. But he missed a lot in Game 3, scoring 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting. After Irving was replaced by rookie Peyton Pritchard midway through the second quarter, he gradually came into his own in the second half, and his three-pointer at 7:35 of the fourth quarter cut Boston’s lead to 105-97.

But he has been on the wrong side of the ball defensively in several games, particularly against Tatum, much to the delight of his hometown fans, because other than Durant and Harden, no one has done much for Brooklyn. Those two combined for 80 points; add Irving’s 16 points, and the rest of the Nets players scored 23 points with 8-for-25 shooting.

It was a big deal, Celtics guard Marcus Smart said of Brooklyn’s limited support. Those guys really hurt us, especially in the second game. Joe [Harris] came out of the game, I think he made seven three-pointers in Game 2, and they took advantage of that. The fact that we were able to contain them and not let them hurt us and that those guys came out of the game was very important for us. And the fact that our guys came in and did the same thing that these guys did against us in Game 2, make contributions on both sides of the ball, that’s exactly what we need and we need to keep doing that.

The Boston crowd also took the opportunity to let Irving know what they thought of him several times in the second half. After he drew a foul on Smart on a three-pointer with 5:11 to go in the third period, the crowd started yelling F- you, Kyrie while considering whether that foul was considered hard (it was not).

When Smart and Blake Griffin collided midway through the fourth period and Smart was slow to recover, the crowd roared: Kyrie sucks! All the time.

But in the end, this game came down to Tatum’s game.

And while Harden (41 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists) and Durant (39 points and nine rebounds) were outstanding overall, Tatum played the entire game with the league’s two former MVPs, taking shot after shot and forcing Boston back into this series, even while teammate Jaylen Brown watched from the sidelines after undergoing wrist surgery earlier this month.

We know what he’s capable of, Nets coach Steve Nash said. We’ve done well at home, but it’s a job that takes a lot of perseverance and we have to keep being there to protect him and make it hard for him in groups. Put different people on him, support those who need support, and get him out when we have people who can protect him.

Tatum got help, too. Tristan Thompson had his best game for the Celtics with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Smart scored 23 points and handed out six assists, made 8 of 11 field goal attempts, 5 of 8 3-point shots and made several key defensive plays. And Evan Fournier scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds.

The Celtics matched the Nets in three-point shooting: 16 on 39 versus Brooklyn’s 16 on 38.

They beat us on three-point shots, Durant said. They made 16 three-point shots in that building….. So they had a chance to score from the three-point line, which helps every team stay in the game, and we need to counter better.

They have a 50% success rate on the field, you can’t have that. Forty-one percent of three? We can’t let that happen. And interrupted? You just have to get better at it.

Sunday night, Brooklyn has a chance to improve and thus regain control of the series. But Boston was better for one night at least, thanks to Tatum, who dominated the Brooklyn stars.

He’s so developed for a 23-year-old, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. I said the word specifically. Obviously, I don’t say that very often. He has a unique ability to mark the ball, to sneak into gaps, to find angles to score, but at the same time he has the vision to make the right read.

He was great today.

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