And after Tatum presented a master class presentation on Thursday night, ending with 39 points and nine rebounds in just under 48 minutes at Boston & # 39; s 141-133 win in overtime over the LA Clippers in the final game before he appears in his first All-Star game, Walker had more to say.
"So far, yes," said Walker, when asked if this had been the best game Tatum had ever played. "He was incredible. He made all the right moves. He made all the big shots.
"He was the best player on the court tonight."
In saying "so far", Walker hinted that Tatum has room to increase his game from here. But if that is as good as possible, the Celtics will still be very happy.
Tatum checked all the boxes on this one. Durability? In a two-hour overtime game, he played more minutes than anyone on the court. Efficient scoring? He finished the 14-to-23 game on the field, including 5-to-10 in the 3-point break. Drawing faults? He ended the game with 10 free-throw attempts, tying his career (and also showing the defect in his performance, as he only made six).
And defensively? All Tatum did was hold the Clippers star Kawhi Leonard to the 3 by 11 shots when he was protecting him – including 1 by 7 from the field in the fourth quarter and the two extra periods, according to Second Spectrum player tracking data.
It was a tour de force – which faced one of the best teams in the league and its best players (in its position), as Tatum prepares to go to Chicago this weekend. And then he admitted that having a chance to play against players like Leonard and Paul George (who left the game in the second quarter due to an injury to the left tendon) helped to increase his level of play.
"Every time you have a chance to play against guys you admire, or who are the best in the league, it definitely raises your level of play," Tatum told ESPN. "I like to compete against the best players".
Tatum wasn't just competing against the best players – he looked like one of them. In a night full of superlative performances and impressive moments on both sides – Marcus Smart finished with 31 points, including scoring Boston's top 10; Lou Williams had 35 points and eight assists, including almost winning the Celtics alone in the fourth quarter; Leonard had 28 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists; and Walker had 19 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists – his clearly stood out among the rest.
"It's just his maturity with this," said Smart. "He takes time and we trust him 120 percent. He knows that, there is an extra confidence he already has and it is more confidence for him to go out there and be the player we see in him."
"He is doing a great job, but you can definitely say that he has matured, he put that job on, and everything is showing him. Not just for him, but for this team. It's amazing."
Tatum had previously said that he keeps players like Leonard and George as role models for what he aspires to be: an elite two-way player. During Tatum's time on the USA team, they were the two names Gregg Popovich gave him as examples of what the Hall of Fame coach thinks he can become.
Facing them on Thursday night, these aspirations and potential have given way to more tangible proof that he is at least approaching their level – with the All-Star Game on the horizon being just an added bonus.
"It's fun [to see]"Walker said of Tatum's growth." I'm happy to be a part of it. It's just special.
"He's been playing really well, but not only is he scoring, he's also making the right move. I think that's the most important thing. You're driving and kicking, he's seeing his readings and doing the right things."
Tatum did so many things right on Thursday night. And as a result, the Celtics enter the All-Star with a record of 38 to 16, having won eight of the last nine games, and are firmly housed as the third seed of the Eastern Conference. It is a long way from last season, which ended with a thump in a defeat in five games for the Milwaukee Bucks in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference. Tatum also suffered a disappointing seventh place last summer with the USA team at the FIBA World Cup, in which he lost the medal round due to a sprained ankle.
But after Thursday's game, Tatum admitted that last season's tests and tribulations helped him learn to reach the level of play he showed on Thursday night.
"I think all of these things have helped me to put myself in the position I am in now," said Tatum, "and have increased my level of play as I keep trying to figure it out."