Tatum, Martin among NBA conference finals players from NC schools

The Celtics, Heat, Nuggets and Lakers are the four remaining playoff teams

Former Duke star Jayson Tatum, right, scored 51 points in Sunday’s Game 7 against the 76ers, leading the Celtics back to the Eastern Conference finals after Boston lost in the NBA finals last year. (Steven Senne / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Now in his sixth year in the NBA, former Duke standout and current Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum has blossomed into one of the league’s premier players. He’s also one of five players in the conference finals with collegiate ties to the state of North Carolina.

Tatum is joined by Miami’s Caleb Martin (NC State) and Omer Yurtseven (NC State), as well as Denver’s Ish Smith (Wake Forest) and Jack White (Duke).

With his 51-point, 13-rebound performance in Boston’s Game 7 win over Philadelphia on May 14, Tatum, passed Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn on the Celtics’ all-time playoff scoring list with 2,059 and moved into eighth place right behind NBA legend Bill Russell (2,673).

Six playoff appearances in six years have elevated Tatum into a full-fledged NBA star. The 25-year-old St. Louis native — who played one season at Duke in 2016-17 — was an MVP candidate this season and averaged 30.1 points 8.8 rebounds per game.

The second-seeded Celtics (57-25) will now square off with No. 8 Miami Heat (44-38) for the Eastern Conference crown, while the No. 1 Denver Nuggets (53-29) have home-court advantage over the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers (43-39) in the Western Conference.

Tatum helped lead Boston to a Game 6 road win in a conference semifinals elimination game against the 76ers, then put on a show in the clinching win.

“To be honest, they had us on the ropes in Game 6 at the end of that third, going into the fourth,” Tatum told reporters after Boston’s Game 7 win. “The game was back-and-forth. The crowd was into it. They had us and we figured out a way to win. It was a great feeling to get that win, to come back home and have another opportunity.”

Now the Celtics face a familiar playoff challenger in the Jimmy Butler-led Heat.

“We’re certainly familiar with them — it’s the third time in four years playing them in the playoffs,” Tatum said. “They’re a very well-coached team and they compete with the best of them. They play hard, they defend, they make plays. They figure out a way to win games. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be highly competitive, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s the best time of the year and we get to play them again, so as a competitor, you love the opportunity.”

Of the other four players in the conference finals with connections to N.C. (Yurtseven, Smith and White have played limited roles in their teams’ rotations), Caleb Martin — twin brother to Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Martin — is the one most likely to make a postseason impact.

The Martin twins both spent two years at NC State (2014-15 and 2015-16) before transferring to Nevada for their final two years of athletic eligibility. To date, their NBA careers have not led to gaudy numbers but instead a reputation for being hard-working, reliable team players and valuable bench depth.

Caleb spent two years with the Hornets as a teammate to his brother before being waived by the team in 2021 and signing a two-year deal with Miami, where his career arc has trended upward ever since.

Much like his brother, he has quietly increased his production all four years in the league and now averages 9.6 points per game along with 4.8 rebounds. In Game 2 of the Heat’s Eastern Conference semifinals appearance against New York, Martin broke out for a 22-point, eight-rebound performance as he logged a season-high 38 minutes on the court.

Now tasked with guarding Tatum and Jaylen Brown in the Eastern Conference finals, Martin will have to rely on his stringent defense as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls his name as one of his best bench options.

“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Martin said of his team’s next test. “They’re a great team that can space the floor and shoot the ball well, but we’re just like that as well. So we’re going to continue to be scrappy. Hopefully, it’s our best shooting series and we’re coming in with the mindset to win just like they are, I’m sure. We’re coming to compete.”