The Brooklyn Nets looked like the dominant side in their first two games against the Boston Celtics but it was the home team that received a standout effort from their star on Friday night to come away with a much-needed 125-119 victory.
After largely being ineffective on the offensive end in the two games at Barclays Center, Jayson Tatum broke out in Game 3 as the scene shifted back to TD Garden as he finished the Celtics' win with a game-high 50 points to push the home team over the top. On the other side, it was Kevin Durant and James Harden who paced the Nets offensively as Kyrie Irving struggled in his return to Boston, shooting just 6-17 from the field.
With the win, the Celtics gave themselves some life in this best-of-seven series as they avoided falling into a 3-0 hole against the heavily favored Nets. These two teams will meet again on Sunday evening with the opening tip scheduled for 7 p.m. on TNT.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
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1. Tatum delivers historic performance
There were a number of reasons why the Celtics were down 2-0 coming into this game, including the fact that the Nets have three of the best scorers of this generation. But another key factor in the Celtics' blowout losses in Brooklyn was that Jayson Tatum was basically non-existent.
He scored 31 points in Games 1 and 2 combined, and missed most of the second half of Game 2 after getting poked in the eye by Kevin Durant. Already without Jaylen Brown, who's out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery, the Celtics really couldn't afford even average performances from Tatum, let alone the brutal showings he had to start the series.
On Friday night, however, Tatum flipped the script and delivered in a major way. He wasn't average, or good, or even really good. He was incredible. Shooting a stellar 16-for-30 from the field, Tatum poured in 50 points and added six rebounds and seven assists for good measure. He became the third youngest player in NBA history to put up 50 in a playoff game -- just behind Michael Jordan and Jerry West -- and just the sixth Celtics player to accomplish that feat.
Inside, outside, at the free throw line, he was doing it all in Game 3, and the Nets had no answer. The Celtics continually manipulated the Nets' defense to get smaller defenders matched up with Tatum, and he either shot over them or drew fouls. And when Durant tried his hand late in the game, Tatum delivered the clutch jumper right in his face to seal the win.
This was just a special display from one of the game's best young players. The Celtics have had a rough season, but with Tatum leading the way they still have a bright future.
2. Harden and Durant combine for 80, but Irving struggles
Tatum's 50 points are going to be the headline from this game, and for good reason. But he wasn't the only star who went off in this game. James Harden and Kevin Durant were impressive in their own right, as they combined for 80 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists on 24-for-42 from the field.
The Celtics, like everyone else, had no answer for either of them. Whether it was Durant's mid-range jumpers, or Harden's dynamic isolation sequences, those two were getting all the shots they wanted. Most nights it would have been enough for a win, but not this time. Mostly that's because of Tatum, but it's also because Kyrie Irving had a rough night.
Irving returning to Boston is always notable, and he was met by loud boos for the entirety of the game. Only he will know if that had anything to do with his uncharacteristically poor outing, but the fact is he had his worst game of the series. He finished with 16 points on 6-for-17 from the field and had only two assists. Simply put, it's bad news for the Nets if Tristan Thompson is outscoring Irving.
3. Thompson comes to play
Tristan Thompson's first season with the Celtics hasn't been one to remember. He had two stints on the sidelines due to COVID-19 protocols, was in and out of the starting lineup at points and just didn't have the type of impact the Celtics were hoping for when they signed him in free agency.
In Game 3, however, we saw the Thompson that was such a major part of the Cavaliers' playoff runs a few years back. He gave the Celtics some much needed toughness and energy, and was one of the most impactful players on the floor all night long. At various points he was just outworking the Nets, and finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds, including nine of the offensive variety.
With Thompson leading the way, the Celtics cleaned up on the glass and secured a crucial edge in second-chance points: 13-5. While second-chance points are always important, they're even bigger against the Nets. For one, they help you keep up with them in the scoring department, and two, they prevent their elite scorers from running out in transition.