The Celtics and their fans need no reminders about how last season ended. It was a wild, memorable ride that lasted all the way to the NBA Finals, but when the final buzzer sounded, there was only disappointment.
In a Sports Illustrated article published Wednesday, Jaylen Brown was asked how he got over the hurt. His reply: “I’m still not past it.”
Jayson Tatum perhaps took the loss even harder. “Didn’t feel like talking to anybody. Didn’t feel like being bothered. It’s hard to explain if you have never been in that situation. But losing a championship was ----ing miserable.”
Tatum had every reason to take the defeat personally. He’d just had his best regular season, appearing in 76 games and averaging career highs in points (26.9), rebounds (8.0) and assists (4.4). He shot 45.3% from the field, 35.3% on threes, and 85.3% at the free throw line. Tatum also registered a team-high 31.3% usage rate and a 12.1 net rating. He led the entire league in plus/minus at +667. That performance earned him a spot on the All-NBA first team.
Deuce’s dad continued his ascendance in the Eastern playoffs “revenge tour” victories over the Nets, Bucks and Heat. Beginning with his glorious buzzer beater that shocked Brooklyn, Tatum scored 30 or more points seven times in 18 games, topped by his 46-point masterpiece in Game 6 at Milwaukee to prevent Boston’s elimination.
While helping to win the Eastern Conference, Tatum averaged 27.0 points, 6.7 boards and 5.9 assists, with shooting splits of 44.6%/37.5%/83.3%. He outplayed Kevin Durant head-to-head, led Boston’s elimination of defending champion Milwaukee, and dropped 26/10/6 as the Cs won Game 7 in Miami (Boston’s first G7 win on the road since 1974). Tatum was rightfully named the Eastern postseason MVP, and Banner 18 seemed to be a real possibility.
Until Tatum forgot how to shoot.
In Game 1 in San Francisco, the Duke product couldn’t throw it in the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf. He was 3 of 17 for a paltry 12 points – although, demonstrating his growth, he tallied a career-high 13 assists to help Boston steal the win. Still, that set the tone for the series.
With every game, Celtics fans were thinking, “This has to be the night he breaks out,” but it didn’t happen. There were a couple of good three-point nights (6-9 in Game 2 and 5-9 in Game 5), but no explosion, no JT takeover. For all six games, Tatum struggled mightily with finishing at the rim.
In the end, Tatum averaged just 21.5 points, with 6.8 rebounds and 7.0 assists. He made a stellar 45.5% (20-44) from the arc, but was horrendous on twos (24-76, 31.6%) and free throws (21-32, 65.6%). Worse still, he committed a series-high 23 turnovers.
And while he was +129 versus the East, he was -21 against the Warriors.
To be fair, the Warriors are as good defensively as the Celtics. They focused on stopping Tatum, and Andrew Wiggins guarded him effectively head-to-head. As a result, Wiggins’ 18.3 points per game nearly matched Tatum’s scoring output – and that hurt badly.
In 24 total playoff games, Tatum was no. 1 among all NBA playoff participants in points (615) and assists (148). Clearly, the Celtics could not afford a drop-off from their young star when their need was greatest. But that’s what happened.
In our “what have you done for me lately?” world, all of Tatum’s achievements were quickly forgotten. He received more than his fair share of criticism. On Twitter, the mocking was relentless, especially from Warriors fans who have been there before but weren’t acting like it. Naturally, some trolls went over the top, calling Tatum “the most overrated player in the league.”
Ridiculous – but Tatum isn’t expecting tributes right now. From the article:
Few things light a fire under a player like losing in the Finals. So Tatum brushes off compliments about Boston’s season. “It’s hard to call it a good year,” says Tatum, “when you f---ing lose a championship.”
That’s precisely the attitude you want to hear from your 19+5-year-old all-leaguer. In addition, Tatum’s critics need to know he’s not the first young superstar to underperform in a Finals debut.
LeBron James first finals:— NBA Muse (@NBAMuse24) October 3, 2022
Lost to the Spurs who won their 4th finals in 8 years
Jayson Tatum first finals:
Lost to the Warriors who won their 4th finals in 8 years pic.twitter.com/Aoa8CmdGO5
To add to the similarities, the young King (age 22 at the time) also matched Tatum’s 23 turnovers.
LeBron wasn’t the only one:
- Kobe Bryant, age 21 in 2000: 15.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.2 apg, shooting splits of 36.7% FG, 20% 3PT, 90.9% FT.
- Larry Bird, age 24 in 1981: 15.3/15.3/7.0 while shooting 41.9%/33.3%/81.3%.
- Dirk Nowitzki, age 27 in 2006: 22.8/10.8/2.5, shooting 39.0%/25.0%/89.1%.
Compared to their production pre-Finals, those were well below-average numbers for all four stars, but that drove them to do better. And for the same reason, we can expect a Tatum bounce-back. From the article, comments from trainer Drew Hanlen:
In the gym with other NBA players, including Bulls guards Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, Tatum was intense. Post-Finals, says Hanlen, Tatum developed a surliness. “He has become obsessed with winning,” says Hanlen. In one-on-one games. “Didn’t lose one all summer,” says Hanlen. In five-on-five. During one session, Tatum’s team fell behind 0–2 in a best of seven. Before the start of the third game, Tatum barked at his teammates that they wouldn’t lose another. They didn’t. To increase his burst on drives—Tatum was fouled on only 9.8% of his drives last season, a number he’d like to tick up—he adjusted his posture, dropping his body lower when he faced up. He shot hundreds of floaters. He explored ways to better fight fatigue, tweaking his diet and increasing his conditioning drills. He quizzed Durant, who is no stranger to a heavy workload, on his habits. “I’m still young enough where I feel like I can learn from a lot of guys,” says the 24-year-old Tatum. “And he’s one of the best to ever do it.”
Obsessed with winning. Driven. Inquisitive. Sounds especially like Bird and Kobe, who worked tirelessly to improve their games, year after year. And Tatum appears to have their work ethic.
Knowing all this now, tipoff time on October 18 can’t come soon enough.
(All statistics from nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com.)