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 Friday night in Cleveland.
"I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games," Tatum said. "I think that's when I have the most fun, when things are on the line. A lot of guys stepped up tonight. I can't say it enough: We're one win away from going to the [NBA] Finals, especially after everything we've been through."
On a night Tatum slipped past Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain to become 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."
Tatum might not be waiting to be great. And teammates believe that -- with 97 games now under his belt this season -- it's time to stop calling him a rookie.
"It's not even something new at this point. He's not even a rookie," said 21-year-old Jaylen Brown. "He's deep into the postseason in his first year. So it's a blessing to be here. He's been filling it up on both sides of the ball. I tell him to stay locked in on both sides, but the sky is the limit for him."
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. While James downplayed possible fatigue, at least one Celtics player seemed to acknowledge that James wasn't his typical self.
"We throw a lot of different bodies at him. And he has to do a lot for that team," Marcus Morris said. "Obviously, everybody knows the games are coming up pretty quick. We just played [Monday], games are coming fast. At the end of the day, I mean, s--- I'm tired. Everybody else is tired. We've still got to play. He does a lot for his team -- scores, assists, rebounds. I would think he gets a little tired."
Boston improved to 10-0 at home this postseason and moved to within one win of an improbable trip to the NBA Finals. Boston fans chanted "Celts in six!" near the end of Wednesday's game.
"The energy level, we feed off the crowd," Brown said. "The crowd is like the best sixth man in the league. When we're out there we can definitely feel the energy the Garden is giving us, and we use it to do what we've got to do."
The Celtics will be challenged to close this series on the road, with the undesirable possibility of having to trek back to Boston for a winner-take-all Game 7 with James on the opposite side.
For one night, the Celtics will simply revel in sitting on the cusp of an improbable Finals trip. And they can thank some of their youngest players for helping them get this far.
This was Tatum's ninth 20-point game of the postseason; he now sits fourth on the NBA's all-time list of most postseason points by a rookie with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (352) in his sights if Boston can extend its playoff run.
"It's just been a lot of fun," Tatum said. "I've just been enjoying it, the level of play, the atmosphere. The playoffs bring the best out of people and out of players, and hopefully we keep it going."
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