MIAMI — Boston Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum was named the inaugural Larry Bird award winner as the MVP of the NBA Eastern Conference finals at the conclusion of the series Sunday.
Tatum, 24, wore an armband honoring Kobe Bryant as the Celtics beat the Miami Heat 100-96 in Game 7, and he delivered one of the most important performances of his career — scoring 26 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and adding 6 assists in 46 minutes. Tatum came into Game 7 averaging 24.8 points, 8 rebounds and 5.5 assists and repeatedly made big plays when the Celtics needed them.
“It’s an honor,” Tatum said of winning the first Bird award. “It still doesn’t even seem real right now. I’m just extremely happy and grateful for all of this. Regardless of how long I’ve been in the league, I’m not too far removed from when I was in high school and when I was dreaming about moments like this.
“I still feel like a kid at some times that I’m truly living out my dream. I thank God every day just to be in this position to be able to do that. To be the first person to win this award, obviously after Larry Bird, it still hasn’t like sunk in yet. I’m going to take it home and show [my son] Deuce [Monday] and enjoy it.”
Tatum’s consistency throughout the series set him apart. Night after night, he delivered in key moments, especially late in Game 7 as he hit several big jumpers and made strong defensive plays against Heat star Jimmy Butler. Tatum and Butler shared a handshake and a hug at center court after the series finale, displaying the mutual admiration that was apparent all series.
“A guy that’s carried us throughout the season,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Asked a lot to be put on his shoulders and has delivered. You look at the numbers, 26-point night and that’s standard for him. That’s an average night for him. He’s averaged 27 this year, First Team All-NBA. So he knows a lot is related upon him. …
“Jayson, he’s the head of the snake. Well-deserved all the accolades he’s getting, and he’s only 24 and not even touched his ceiling, not even close to that.”
With the Bird trophy under his belt, Tatum has finally delivered the Celtics back to the NBA Finals, where he now has a chance to cement his Boston legacy. Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors is Thursday in San Francisco. The fact that he did it while wearing an armband in honor of Bryant made it that much more special for the young star.
“Obviously that was my idol,” Tatum said. “That was my inspiration. That was my favorite player. The shoes I wore, been wearing the last couple games were dedicated to him.
“Today before I took my nap — I do it sometimes, I was watching some film and some moments from him and his career. This is the biggest game of my career thus far, and I wanted to wear that armband to honor him and kind of share that moment in a way.”
While Tatum earned the Bird award, it was Butler’s performance that might last even longer in the annals of the game. The 32-year-old scored 35 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in Game 7 — and came into the defining contest averaging 24 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists in the series.
Butler’s series was made even more impressive by the fact that he dealt with right knee soreness off and on throughout the last week, and missed the second half of Game 3 because of ongoing issues with the knee. As a whole, Butler imposed his will on the game and carried the Heat to victories. In Miami’s Game 1 win, Butler racked up 41 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists in 41 minutes. In Game 6, with the Heat on the verge of elimination, Butler played arguably the best game of his career, scoring 47 points, grabbing 9 rebounds and dishing out 8 assists in front of a raucous Boston crowd to deliver the Heat into Game 7.
“It’s one of the great performances of an elite competitor,” heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler. “You know, Jimmy has this competitive will that is so unique that is a talent unto itself. There’s a lot of basketball players in this league. Jimmy is a great basketball player. He’s a world-class competitor and he knows how to win basketball games. That’s a talent.
“And for young players coming into the league, I think that’s a missing talent or skill. It becomes about all the other skills. But that’s what makes Jimmy so unique as a world-class player. He just knows how to compete to win and to compete to not let you lose. That’s an incredible DNA that he has inside of him.”
In the end, it was Tatum who got the best of Butler and the Heat — and got some revenge for Miami’s triumph over the Celtics in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals.
“He does everything,” Butler said. “Shoot the ball, play in the pick-and-roll, he passes the ball incredibly well, gets out in transition. He’s a superstar, and he deserved that. They deserve the win. I wish them the best moving forward. He’s one hell of a player, that’s for damn sure.”