Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum wins inaugural Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP award

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Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum wins inaugural Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP award

MIAMI — Boston Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum was named the inaugural Larry Bird Award winner for NBA Eastern Conference Finals MVP to conclude the series on Sunday.

Tatum, 24, wore an armband honoring Kobe Bryant as the Celtics defeated the Miami Heat 100-96 in Game 7, and he delivered one of the most important performances of his career – scoring 26 points, catching 10 rebounds and adding 6 assists added 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 inaugural Bird Award. “Right now it doesn’t even seem real. I’m just really happy and grateful for all of that. Regardless of how long I’ve been in the league, I’m not too far removed from my time at school and when I dreamed of moments like this.

“Sometimes I still feel like a kid really living my dream. I thank God every day that I am in this position to be able to do this. To be the first person to win this award, of course after that Larry Bird, it hasn’t sunk that far yet, I’ll take it home and show it [my son] Two [Monday] and enjoy it.”

Tatum’s consistency throughout the series set him apart. Night after night he delivered at key moments, especially late in Game 7 when he hit several big jumpers and made strong defensive plays against Heat star Jimmy Butler. Tatum and Butler shared a handshake and hug on center court after the series finale, showing the mutual admiration evident throughout the series.

“A guy who carried us all season,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “Demanded a lot to be put on his shoulders and delivered. You look at the numbers, 26-point night and that’s standard for him. This is an average night for him. He’s averaging 27 years old this year, First Team All-NBA. So he knows he can be counted on. …

“Jayson, he’s the head of the snake. All the accolades he gets are well deserved, and he’s only 24 and hasn’t even touched his blanket, not even close.”

Armed with the Bird trophy, Tatum has finally brought the Celtics back to the NBA Finals where he now has a chance to continue his legacy from Boston. Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors takes place in San Francisco on Thursday. The fact that he did it while wearing an armband in Bryant’s honor 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 boots that I wore, that I wore in the last few games, were dedicated to him.

“Today before I took my nap – I do sometimes, I watched a movie and some moments of him and his career. This is the biggest game of my career so far and I wanted to wear this armband to honor him and share this moment in a way.”

While Tatum received the Bird Award, it was Butler’s achievement that could last longer in the game’s annals. The 32-year-old scored 35 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in Game 7 – and came into the deciding contest averaging 24 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists in the series.

Butler’s streak was made even more impressive by the fact that he has been dealing with recurring right knee pain for the past week and missed the second half of Game 3 with persistent knee problems. Throughout the series, Butler dictated his will to the game and led the Heat to victories. In Miami’s Game 1 win, Butler had 41 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists in 41 minutes. In Game 6, with the Heat on the verge of elimination, Butler played what was arguably the best game of his career, scoring 47 points, rebounding 9 and dishing 8 assists in front of a roaring Boston crowd to put 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 unique competitive spirit that’s a talent in its own right. There are many 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 lack of talent or skill. It’s 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 compete not to let you lose. That’s incredible DNA he carries.

In the end, it was Tatum who got the most out of Butler and the Heat — and avenged Miami’s triumph over the Celtics in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.

“He does everything,” said Butler. “Shoot the ball, play the pick and roll, he passes the ball incredibly well, comes out in transition. He’s a superstar and he deserves it. They deserve the win. I wish them all the best for the Future. He’s a damn good player, that’s damn sure.”

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