The 2022 NBA Finals could have been the coronation of Jayson Tatum as one of the NBA’s true, elite superstars – but as of yet, it has not worked out that way.
The Boston Celtics forward hasn’t really had a game where he has stepped up and dominated in the way that he can. There have been fits and starts, but he certainly hasn’t done it throughout an entire game.
Now, the Celtics need him to more than ever with the team in a win-or-go-home situation, 3-2 down in the best-of-seven series that will decide who will hoist aloft the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Tatum and the C’s will fight to keep their hopes alive in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors at TD Garden, live on Sky Sports Arena & Main Event, from 1.45am overnight.
Of course, it’s not fair to judge a player entirely based on the output of their first NBA Finals series and, as Sky Sports NBA pundits BJ Armstrong and Mo Mooncey will break down for us in the film room later on in the article, it’s far from all on Tatum.
It’s now or never, though, in terms of this series for the 24-year-old from St Louis, Missouri, to show what he can really do with a signature performance.
Here are a few areas to think about with regards to Tatum’s form heading into Game 6…
Ups and downs of Tatum’s NBA Finals so far
Game 1: Tatum really struggled with his shooting, finishing with 12 points going 3-for-17 from the field. On the plus side, he excelled as a facilitator, dishing out 13 assists, with just two turnovers as the Celtics rode a huge fourth quarter to stun the Warriors in San Francisco.
Game 2: Tatum’s own scoring bounced back in Game 2. He scored 28 points and shot 6-for-9 beyond the arc, but when the Celtics’ outside shooting went cold in the third quarter, the Warriors turned a close game into a rout. The Dubs eventually took victory by a 19-point margin, but Tatum was minus-36 for his minutes on the floor, definitely the most telling stat from Game 2. Individual scoring counts for nothing if your team gets decimated while you’re playing.
Game 3: One of Tatum’s best two performances in the series. He didn’t top-score for his team, that honour went to Jaylen Brown on a night that the other ‘Jay’, along with Tatum and Marcus Smart, made some history. They became the first trio since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and Magic Johnson in 1984 to each record 20 points, five rebounds and five assists together in an NBA Finals game. Tatum, who was looking to strike a balance between scoring and playmaking as well as his defense – after showing flashes of all three in the opening two games on the road – found the sweet spot in Game 3 with 26 points to go with nine assists, and a plus-minus of plus-13.
Game 4: Turnovers have blighted Tatum throughout the NBA Playoffs and the six committed in Game 4 comprised his worst tally for any single game of this series. He’s had 95 in the postseason, which is the most since 1977-78 (when that statistic was first tracked). Other than that, he was decent from a personal point of view: 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, and he was a net-positive during his minutes despite the Celtics losing by a 10-point margin.
Game 5: Alongside Game 3, Tatum’s Game 5 was also impressive as he scored a game-high 27 points with 10 rebounds for an impressive double-double, only this time the Celtics lost. His scoring run included 13 in the first half, and he also helped drive the Celtics forward during a furious third-quarter run, in which they drilled an NBA Finals-record eight consecutive 3-pointers as a team. With Wiggins taking the bulk of the responsibility of guarding Tatum, the 24-year-old is shooting 5-for-21 in the fourth quarter of the Finals. He is going to have to improve in the clutch to give the Celtics a chance.
Impact of fatigue on Tatum’s performance
The wear and tear from back-to-back seven-game series seems to be taking its toll on the Boston Celtics at the worst possible time.
The Celtics missed 11 of 15 shots in the fourth quarter of the 104-94 loss to the Warriors in Game 5 on Monday night.
“I had a couple [of] shots that were short,” Tatum said. “I’ve just got to not fade as much. Use my legs. You’re going to be a little more tired in the fourth than you are in the first quarter. You’ve got to get your legs a little more under you on a couple of those shots. Give yourself a chance.”
The loss, the first time in the postseason that the Celtics had lost consecutive games, mirrored the 107-97 defeat in Game 4 when the Celtics shot 30.8 per cent in the final quarter, with Tatum missing four of five shots in both games and missing two free throws on Monday night.
“Part of that could be fatigue,” coach Ime Udoka said. “Expended a lot. Obviously, him playing 44 minutes, he was one of our main guys rolling. When he got it going in the third, we rolled him a little bit longer there. The bench production wasn’t as sharp as usual, so we ran Jayson longer. Some of that fatigue and decision-making could [have played] a part in the fourth quarter.”
The Celtics have had to ride Tatum hard this postseason after sweeping Brooklyn in the first round. Boston then needed seven games to beat Milwaukee in the second round, including a road win in Game 6, and seven against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals capped by a Game 7 road win.
That has led to Tatum playing 943 minutes already this postseason, the most for a player since LeBron James played 960 in 2013 for Miami – a mark he will surpass during Game 6, barring injury or ejection.
“That probably has something to do with the misses,” Udoka said. “Not only free throws but some of his 3-pointers being off a bit.”
Pritchard: Tatum is one of the best players in the league
Despite his failure to reach his highest level on the biggest stage of them all, at least so far, Celtics backup guard Payton Pritchard – speaking exclusively to Sky Sports – resolutely believes Tatum is one of the best players in basketball, based on his regular season and postseason output in 2021-22.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Pritchard said. “I think he’s put himself in the conversation as being one of the best players in the league. And I think he’s gonna be in that position for a long time now.”
He insists Tatum’s self-assurance that he can be the best player on the floor on any given night hasn’t been affected by his dips in form throughout the NBA Finals so far.
“He’s locked in. I mean, he never wavers in his confidence. And in his routine, it’s always the same,” Pritchard said. “So that’s how you know he’s always gonna be ready, he’s always gonna be prepared.
“Players can have bad nights and all that, but for him it’s never two bad nights in a row. He always comes back and shows what he’s capable of.”
Film room: BJ & Mo analyse struggles for Tatum and Celtics
It wouldn’t make much sense to lay all of the blame at Tatum’s door. Basketball is a team game, people often forget that.
With that in mind, Sky Sports NBA pundits BJ Armstrong and Mo Mooncey hit the film room a closer look at where he and the Boston offense as a whole have struggled.
Watch the two experts break it down in our video above.
How Tatum’s maiden NBA Finals compares to his hero Kobe
A glance at the stats from his hero Kobe Bryant’s first NBA Finals would provide a boost for Jayson Tatum should he need it.
Tatum revealed to reporters he watched clips of Bryant prior to being crowned the inaugural Eastern Conference Finals MVP, when the Celtics eliminated the Miami Heat in Game 7 after a hard-fought series.
“Everybody knows how much he meant to me, how much he meant to the world, how much he meant to the game of basketball,” Tatum told Sky Sports earlier in the series. “He was my inspiration. He was my favourite player. He’s the reason why I fell in love with basketball.”
But Kobe relied on the dominance of Shaquille O’Neal to pick up his first ring in the 2000 NBA Finals. In six games with the Los Angeles Lakers, the late, great Mamba averaged just 15.6 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 36.7 per cent from the field and 20 per cent from 3-point range.
Jayson Tatum’s NBA Finals averages
- 23.2 points per game
- 7.6 rebounds per game
- 7.0 assists per game
- 3.6 turnovers per game
- Field goal attempts: 37.3 per cent
- 3-pointer attempts: 47.5 per cent
As we can see by glancing at the box above, Tatum is significantly better in every statistical category than his hero, with the exception of turnovers – which we’ve already looked at – and his percentage from the field which is only slightly better due to his struggles inside the 3-point line during this series. From beyond the arc, though, he is smashing it. If he can find a way to unlock scoring in and around the paint in Game 6, and potentially Game 7, that could turn the tide of the series.
The size of the task facing Tatum and Celtics
The huge Game 5 outlier aside, Stephen Curry is having one of the all-time best NBA Finals runs from a single player and the Golden State Warriors, as a team, are a bonafide dynasty – they can certainly underline that fact by wrapping up a fourth title in eight years, with a team packed full of talent and championship pedigree.
The Warriors are happy to pay the luxury tax for a reason, to hold on to all that talent, and if Boston somehow manage to pull off a remarkable pair of victories, it would go down in history as one of the team’s greatest championship wins – even if it would be an NBA-record 18th for the franchise – based solely on the quality of the opposition and the current hole the Celtics find themselves them in.
Looking back historically, only one team has ever won three Game 7s in a single postseason, with the Lakers doing it in 1988, beating Utah, Dallas and Detroit at home on the way to a repeat title.
Boston would have to do it by winning two Game 7s on the road, something that has never been done in a single postseason.
“You better be confident, right?” Tatum said. “We ain’t got to win two in one day. We just got to win one game on Thursday. We’ve been in this situation before. So it’s not over. Got to win on Thursday. That’s all we got to worry about right now.”
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