If at this time last year, someone had approached you claiming they were from the future and said, word for word, that “Tatum is going to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy next season,” you might have been a bit taken aback, but people from the future have offered far more terrifying proclamations before. On the scale of Doctor Strange’s 14 million outcomes to the inevitable impact of climate change, this one would’ve fallen safely in the “Back to the Future predicts the Cubs will win the 2015 World Series” camp. The idea that Jayson Tatum would be crowned NBA champion one year after a forgettable disaster of a season would’ve seemed lofty, but not absurd.
Too bad this future-dweller didn’t clarify which Tatum. For it was Mark Tatum, the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner, who would hold and subsequently present the NBA championship trophy to Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors while the more commonly known Tatum sulked to the locker room, dejected. Thinking about missed shots and opportunities, those that, in part, kept his Boston Celtics from winning their first title of this new era despite having a one-game advantage in this series not once, but twice. Wondering what went wrong when the lights became brighter than they had ever been in Tatum’s young, promising career.
“It hurts,” said Tatum, who scored just 13 points on six-of-18 shooting in Boston’s 103-90 Game 6 loss. Despite starting the night by draining three of his six attempts in the first quarter and keeping the Celtics within arm’s reach of the Warriors early on, Tatum’s shotmaking flatlined for the remainder of the game. On top of his meager scoring performance, he pulled just three rebounds, and while he had seven assists, he countered almost every helper with a turnover; his five giveaways (of Boston’s abysmal 22) were tied for a game-high. Tatum recorded 23 total turnovers in the Finals, and along the way, became the first player in NBA history to have 100 turnovers in a single postseason.
“We all could have done things better. I feel like I could have done a lot of things better,” he continued. “But we competed, we tried all season, all playoffs. … It’s hard getting to this point, and it’s even harder getting over the hump and winning it.”
Even given Tatum’s shortcomings, the idea that he was ever Boston’s worst player in this series isn’t one worth hearing. Despite his poor bookend performances — 12 points on three-of-17 shooting in Game 1; 13 forgettable points in Game 6 — he still averaged 21.5 points and had a smattering of solid scoring outings in Games 2-through-5. The Celtics’ reserves were a mess of nothingness for the better part of the series, including a cataclysmic no-show in the closer. But 21.5 points per game in the NBA Finals when you’re supposed to be a team’s leading playmaker, scorer, and leader, full-stop, is unacceptable. Finals debut or not.
What’s worse? How steep Tatum’s drop-off was from the series before this one to the final game of Boston’s season. Before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he was averaging over 28 points per game on 45 percent shooting in the playoffs. From that point on, he scored just 23 points per game on below 40 percent shooting. Tatum shot just 31.6 percent from two-point range in the NBA Finals, and made just 65.6 percent of his free throws.
In his final 10 Takeaways piece of the season, CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith pointed out, “In the Finals, [Tatum] drove more than ever at 15.3 drives per game. In the playoffs as a whole, that number was 14.1 and in the regular season, it was 11.4. In the regular season, Tatum shot 48.8% on drives. In the playoffs overall, he was at 38.3%. But that playoff number is dragged down by a horrible 31% in the Finals.” His 37 percent shooting from the field in The Finals is the worst clip by any player to shoot 20-plus times per game in a Finals series all time.”
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There are plenty of factors that likely play into this, not least of which is the fact that Tatum played 983 minutes this postseason, 63 more than the player who played the second-most minutes, his teammate Jaylen Brown (920). It’s 191 more minutes than the first Warrior on the list, Klay Thompson (who played 792). It’s the most minutes any player has played in a single postseason since LeBron James in 2012 (James also played 983). Perhaps Tatum was fatigued — plenty of NBA commentators, many of them former players, will tell you that’s not a reasonable excuse, but that minutes total is a significant amount of time to be carrying the most weight on a team that makes it all the way to the brink of a championship. No matter if you’re a professional athlete or a professional Hibachi chef: you’d be tired if you ran around for 983 minutes, too.
Then comes the idea that the moment was too big for Tatum; that the opponent across the aisle was the most formidable Boston had faced to this point, and that as the Warriors grew stronger, Boston weakened. On ESPN’s Get Up, Brian Windhorst noted that these Celtics were one of the most resilient teams he had ever covered, but that the Warriors did, indeed, get better as the series wore on, while the Celtics fell to bits, with “Tatum as a personification of that.” That’s certainly a possibility — that with the fate of his team’s season in his hands, Tatum fumbled, and in turn, fumbled a possible vault to legitimate superstar status, at least by mainstream standards (which, it should be noted, are often unrealistic).
But there’s much more to a player’s postseason than what they did or didn’t do on the biggest stage. Yes, Tatum fell short when there was no room for him to do so. But along the way, he also led all players in the postseason in points and assists; was crowned the Eastern Conference Finals MVP; became the youngest player in NBA history to score 600 points, grab 100 rebounds, and dole out 100 assists in a postseason; defeated teams led by Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler en route to his first NBA Finals; scored 46 in a do-or-die game against a Bucks team that looked primed for a second-straight title run; dropped 13 assists in his Finals debut; and won two Game 7’s.
Tatum turned 24 in March. Don’t forget that when you attempt to argue this as a career-defining failure.
“Learn and understand who he is in this league. You’re an All-Star, All-NBA first-team guy for a reason. This is only the start of how you’re going to be guarded and the attention you will draw,” Ime Udoka noted of Tatum’s series postgame. “I think this is the next step for him. Figuring that out. He’s hurting, but he’s a great player. High IQ player. He’ll use this to propel him.
“For him, it’s just continuing to grow and understand you’re going to see this the rest of your career. This is just a start.”
“I just gave him a hug, man,” Jaylen Brown added. “I know it was a tough last game. It stings that we kind of didn’t play to our potential. But it is what it is. You got to learn from it and move on. As tough as it is, it’s been a great year. It’s been a great journey.”
For a day, at least, much of the coverage you see on this site and others like it will likely focus on what Boston didn’t do in The Finals rather than what they did do on their run to it. And that’s fair. When you make it all the way to The Finals, everything else washes away. It’s a clean slate, and if you make a mess of it, that’s likely what you’ll be remembered for, no matter how memorable everything that came before it was.
But I suppose my request, as it pertains to Tatum, would not be to let anything he did in this season’s final six games take away from his burgeoning legacy but instead as something that fuels it. “You don’t want to feel like this again,” a glum Tatum said after Game 6. “But you want to get back here…Yeah, it’s going to fuel us.”
Al Horford offered a similar sentiment: “I don’t want to get caught up in necessarily some of the bad stuff that happened tonight,” he said. “I want us to keep perspective on how much growth Jayson and Jaylen had this year. There’s a lot on their hands, a lot of responsibility. They took it in stride. They made adjustments. They improved. They grew as players.”
Back to what Ime Udoka focused on: “This is just a start.” There should be plenty more big moments for Jayson Tatum in what portends to be a long, decorated career. At times this season, he looked extraterrestrial, a force of basketball nature that was as unstoppable as any player in the league. And at times, particularly noticeable in these Finals, he looked anything but infallible. C’est la vie.
No superstar has ever gone their entire career without falling short on a stage bigger than they had ever seen. LeBron James was swept by the San Antonio Spurs — a franchise that serves as a solid parallel for these Warriors teams — in his first Finals foray. Kawhi Leonard first hoisted the trophy in his second trip, having lost in seven games to LeBron’s Miami Heat in his first attempt. It took Steph Curry four seasons to make the playoffs, let alone win a title (six seasons); including the title he won less than 24 hours ago, he now has four rings and is regarded as one of the greatest to ever play the game, on top of being one of the most decorated.
Tatum should get there. A betting man might put something down on his future odds today. But getting there takes time, and all things considered, Tatum is ahead of schedule. He said that this loss and his own personal failures that helped fuel it will, in turn, fuel him. That’s about as close to a guarantee as you can get.
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After the game, seated to Tatum’s left at the podium, Marcus Smart told reporters, “we went through hell to get here. We didn’t play our best basketball, our best series. This is probably our worst series. Things we went through to get here showed us what we have to come for us in the future. I think that’s why we’re confident about the future. We all know what the goal is in the future.”
He was talking about the Boston Celtics. If you felt like it, though, you could probably make an argument that he was talking about Jayson Tatum, too.