BOSTON — As Jayson Tatum chased down the loose ball, he had to know LeBron James was lurking nearby. And yet the 20-year-old rookie showed no fear, no hesitation while immediately attacking the basket.
To understand why this play was so important, you must rewind six months to opening night in Cleveland when Tatum was battling a major case of first-game jitters. James swatted one of the rookie’s offerings in the opening minute, as big a welcome-to-the-league moment as it gets.
Now, in a sign of just how far Tatum and these young Boston Celtics have come, it was the rookie who won a footrace to the pass he had deflected into the backcourt then, after one strong dribble, went up and finished as James eased up without truly contesting the finish.
Tatum finished with a team-high 24 points on 7-of-15 shooting over 40 minutes to propel the Celtics to a 96-83 triumph over James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 with a chance to close it out on Friday night in Cleveland.
On a night Tatum slipped past Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain while becoming only the sixth rookie in NBA history to score 300 postseason points, he put his team in position to end James’ reign of East supremacy.
Earlier in the day, James had been reminded of the time Tatum visited a Cavaliers shootaround when he was just 8 years old and challenged players like James to games of one-on-one. James said he remembered the visit then offered high praise for modern-day Tatum.
“His composure, he plays above his age. The unfortunate events of injuries [the Celtics] have had has allowed him to get better faster than they expected,” James said. “It’s given him an opportunity to make fail plays or make mistakes and be able to learn from them and still be able to be on the floor.
“His talent, his composure, where he’s come from has allowed him to be successful. He’s a very, very, very good player already and he definitely, at this pace, can become a great player.”
On this night, it was Tatum and the fresh-legged Celtics who seemed to have the extra gear that James and the Cavaliers did not.
James finished with 26 points on 11-of-22 shooting but looked gassed at times throughout the night.
Boston improved to 10-0 at home this postseason and moved one win away from an improbable trip to the NBA Finals. Boston fans chanted “Celts in six!” near the finish of the game.
The Celtics hit the Cavaliers with a 3-point barrage late in the first quarter while creating a bit of separation. Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown all hit triples less than two minutes apart as Boston’s lead spiked from a single point to double-digits.
The Celtics’ lead went as high as 17 early in the second quarter, but a little flareup between Morris and Cavs forward Larry Nance Jr. might have given the Cavaliers a needed jolt.
After Morris swatted Nance, he stood over him in the front row beyond the baseline. Nance sprung to his feet and shoved Morris in frustration, which resulted in Terry Rozier rushing over with a retaliatory shove of his own. Nance, Morris and Rozier were each hit with technicals and the Cavaliers scored the game’s next nine points.
But Boston never let Cleveland make a true charge.