Jayson Tatum had struggled to find his footing through the first three games of the NBA Finals. In Game 1, his elite playmaking made up for his non-efficient shooting. Then, those areas flip-flopped in Game 2, as his playmaking was off, but he shot the ball fairly well. Game 3 saw him notch another high-assists total, but again, his shooting numbers were below average.
In Game 4, nothing was working for the superstar.
He ended the night with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. On its own, that stat line doesn’t look too bad, but it was unfortunately paired with six turnovers and a poor shooting performance from inside the arc. Tatum shot 4-of-8 from deep, but other than that, he went 4-of-15 from the field.
The Golden State Warriors’ defense has clamped down on Tatum. Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and others have done a phenomenal job at making life difficult for him.
“I give them credit. They’re a great team. They’re playing well. They got a game plan, things like that. But it’s on me,” Tatum explained after the Boston Celtics’ Game 4 loss. “I got to be better. I know I’m impacting the game in other ways, but I got to be more efficient, shoot the ball better, finish at the rim better.”
Tatum shot just 3-of-8 in the painted area in Game 4, struggling to convert on layups. Golden State packed the paint, making it extremely hard for him to get a clean look at the rim. Tatum’s touch just wasn’t there, and at times, it seemed as though he was seeking out contact rather than focusing on the shot.
“At times he’s looking for fouls,” said head coach Ime Udoka when asked about Tatum’s scoring issues in the paint. “They are a team that loads up in certain games. He’s finding the outlets. Shooting over two, three guys. That’s the balance of being aggressive and picking your spots and doing what he’s done in previous games, which is kicked it out and got wide-open looks.”
The 24-year-old finished with six assists in Game 4, so his playmaking didn’t completely disappear, but the Celtics need him to be a scorer as well. He was asked about whether or not he hunted fouls too much in Game 4, but Tatum said that it’s just about making “quicker decisions,” so the defense doesn’t have time to load up.
Tatum fed into their plan. Instead of going hard at the rim, he would often settle for jumpers when presented with a mismatch. Most notably, this happened when Nemanja Bjelica was guarding him.
This was a trap the Celtics fell into in Game 2, as the Warriors stopped sending help at Tatum. That’s what allowed him to be such an effective playmaker in Game 1, but Golden State has adjusted well. In Games 2 and 4, Boston’s shifted back to the isolation-heavy basketball that plagued them at the beginning of the regular season, and it’s been primarily because of their desire to hunt mismatches.
“Even when you do find the mismatch, what you want, some guys to still be moving on the backside, not just standing there watching, you know, setting screens, flares, slipping and things like that,” Tatum mentioned when asked about pursuing mismatches. “It’s kind of hard to score in isolation every single time.”
So far this series, Tatum is shooting 0-for-5 when guarded by Bjelica, 5-for-11 when guarded by Stephen Curry, and 3-for-8 when guarded by Kevon Looney. The mismatch hunting has failed miserably.
Tatum’s two-point shooting has been horrific in The Finals. He’s shooting 7-for-14 in the restricted area, 5-for-20 in the paint (non-RA), and 2-for-17 from the mid-range. He has yet to find a rhythm, and when his decision-making isn’t as on point as it was in Games 1 and 3, his lack of shotmaking is hurting the Celtics.
But even with his struggles, Tatum’s teammates still have the utmost confidence in him to perform and are constantly motivating him to keep pushing forward.
“We just constantly let him know, ‘keep going,’” Marcus Smart explained during his post-game interview after Game 4. “‘This isn’t your first time being in a slump. Won’t be the last time. You got to figure it out. We trust you, we believe in you. This is what you’re made for.’ Jayson has to figure it out. We have to do a good job of helping him.”
Game 5 of the NBA Finals is on Monday, June 13 at 9:00 p.m. EST.