BOSTON — Jayson Tatum had his moments against the Philadelphia 76ers but not his game. He had his struggles but didn’t complain.
With his season on the line again, Tatum’s confidence was rewarded Sunday with a performance that didn’t mean Joel Embiid needed to give back his NBA MVP award, but at the very least Tatum could ask his offseason training buddy for a one-night rental.
Tatum scored 51 points — an NBA record for a Game 7 — to lead the Celtics to a 112-88 victory and back to the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in his six seasons. They will play the Miami Heat beginning Wednesday.
“He was fantastic,” Embiid said of Tatum. “I told him after the game, he was pretty inefficient the whole series. He chose a great night to have that type of game.”
Tatum surpassed the Game 7 record Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry set last month with 50 points to end the Sacramento Kings’ season. Tatum left Sunday’s game with 3:23 remaining, raising his hands to a standing ovation and chants of MVP.
It was the second time in as many games the Celtics leaned on their best player to save their season. But unlike Game 6, when he needed a 12-point outburst in the final 4:14, Tatum eschewed the slow starts offensively, driving inside for a two-handed dunk that meant he wouldn’t have to wait to find a rhythm. He was already in one.
“Going into Game 6, I was too locked in. I was too tight. Just too in my own thinking about what I got to do. ‘How many points do I need to score?’ Today I was more myself,” Tatum said, mentioning that he was joking around in practice Saturday. “That’s when I play my best, when I’m having fun. Just go out there and relax and have fun. Think about those days when you’re a kid at the YMCA or whatever. That’s when the game opens up.”
Embiid, on the other hand, had his worst outing of this postseason, needing 18 shots to contribute just 15 points. It was the third time in his career he was a Game 7 away from advancing to the conference finals. That remains a wall he has been unable to breakthrough, his pathway made more difficult this season by a sprained knee suffered in the first round in Brooklyn.
Embiid had dominant performances upon his return in the second game of this series, but the longer it went, the more he labored. In Game 7, he looked gassed, hunting fouls that didn’t get called, forcing shots that weren’t there and settling for others. Rivers suggested he might have tweaked the knee while tripping over Celtics guard Marcus Smart in the first half.
“No excuses. I thought I was okay. I was limited for the most part, not just tonight,” Embiid said. “If I don’t finish first, it is a failure.”
Sunday was the 10th anniversary of 76ers owner Josh Harris hiring Sam Hinkie as general manager, a move that sent the franchise through a blatant, controversial and eye-sore-inducing period of losing — known as “The Process” — that prompted the NBA to change the draft lottery rules. Embiid, the one positive from those years of dread, adopted the nickname for himself, and his ascension to MVP was meant to represent an organization now relevant in championship conversations.
But with Embiid unable to lead the 76ers past the second round, Philadelphia enters a worrisome offseason that centers on the futures of James Harden and Coach Doc Rivers. Harden is expected to opt out of his deal and become a free agent this summer, with rumors percolating of a possible return to Houston. And despite declaring he expects to return, Rivers lost his 10th consecutive game with an opportunity to advance to the conference finals, covering time with both the 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers.
“James, Joe, me. Got to point somewhere, right?” Rivers said of the blame game. “I think this team is headed right. I thought we took another mental step to this season. And tonight, we took a step backward.”
The 76ers will regret not only failing to close out the Celtics in Game 6 but also giving Tatum the chance to regain the confidence to blow up an entire era. Philadelphia wilted in surrendering 18 unanswered points in the third period, but Rivers felt the game was lost well before that. Philadelphia was up 35-27 when Harden was called for a flagrant foul when he lost the ball on a potential layup and elbowed Jaylen Brown in the face. “We were playing so well,” Rivers said. “After that, we never played right again.”
The Celtics scored the next eight points, took the lead on a three-pointer by Al Horford and entered the locker room with a 55-52 lead. Brown had worn a protective mask to protect his face for the past few months but removed it for this series and joked afterward, “My mom is probably like: ‘See, you should’ve kept it on.’ Nothing like a shot to the face to wake you right up.” Brown finished with 25 points.
In his first postseason as the Celtics’ coach, Joe Mazzulla has dealt with questions about his decision-making and ability to motivate. But he made the biggest adjustment of the series by inserting Robert Williams as a starter in Game 6. The move gave Boston the same starting lineup that advanced to the NBA Finals last year, but it also blew up whatever the 76ers had going with both Embiid and Harden on pick and rolls. Harden, who had two games in which he exceeded 40 points this series, saved his worst for last; he scored nine points on 3-for-11 shooting. Tobias Harris led Philadelphia with 19 points.
But none of Mazzulla’s maneuvers would have mattered if not for Tatum’s heroics. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in this building — and it was LeBron,” Rivers said of great Game 7 performances, referencing the classic duel in 2008, in which LeBron James scored 45 points but lost to Rivers’s Celtics, which was led by Paul Pierce’s 41 points. “That’s the only time I’ve seen a performance like that live.” Rivers is 7-10 as a coach in Game 7s.
Rarely one for emotion, Tatum used choice words to express ownership of TD Garden. He later hit a three-pointer to put the Celtics up 88-60, turned the crowd and shouted: “What?! What?!”
The crowd had no answer. The 76ers didn’t, either.