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Jayson Tatum looked nothing like the regular-season version of himself during his first NBA Finals appearance.
However you want to analyze it, he was one of the five to 10 best players in the league prior to his meltdown against the Golden State Warriors.
He made the All-NBA First Team and finished seventh in scoring. The Boston Celtics were plus-12.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor (the best net rating in the NBA). Advanced statistics from all over the internet adored him.
In the first three rounds of the 2022 postseason—when the Celtics swept the Brooklyn Nets, overcame Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, and beat the top-seeded Miami Heat as he averaged 27.0 points, 5.9 assists and 3.2 threes—he looked like that player.
Then, in the most important series of his life, Tatum seemingly forgot how to play inside the three-point line.
Among the 296 players in NBA history who attempted at least as many two-point shots in a Finals series, Tatum’s 31.6 two-point percentage ranks 282nd. Each of the efforts below his on that list took place between 1947 and 1961.
With a chance to kick-start legacy conversations before his 25th birthday, Tatum instead found himself putting up pre-merger shooting numbers (at least from two-point range).
That wasn’t his only issue. His 23 turnovers tie him for the 23rd-most recorded in a single Finals (and nine of the players ahead of him played in seven-gamers).
Only two players in league history matched or exceeded Tatum’s totals for turnovers and missed shots (76) in a Finals (though his company there, LeBron James in 2015-16 and Kobe Bryant twice, might offer some hope).
In Game 6 alone, he looked overwhelmed.
Two series earlier, he’d scored 46 points in an elimination game against the Bucks. The next round, he had 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a Game 7 win over Miami.
But on Thursday, he went out with a whimper, scoring 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting, turning the ball over five times and looking scared to make a play in the second half.
Forget measuring up to Stephen Curry. Tatum probably wasn’t even on Andrew Wiggins’ level. When he was defended by the 2014 No. 1 pick, Tatum shot 37.5 percent, and the Celtics scored a paltry 83.5 points per 100 possessions.
After building for months toward what could’ve been a “Dwyane Wade in 2006” type of early arrival, Tatum fell flat against Golden State.
We’ll save the armchair psychoanalysis of the 24-year-old for some other space, but it is worth exploring why this happened.
Tatum was great against the defense of Wesley Matthews, P.J. Tucker, Jrue Holiday, Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler in earlier rounds this postseason. But the determination he showed in those matchups disappeared in the Finals.
Instead of trying to finish through contact (like Stanley Sugarman taught Bo Cruz to do), Tatum seemed more intent on exaggerating it. On countless drives, once he broke the paint and saw a body (or still had Wiggins in front of him), he just sort of threw his arms up. After he missed, he often shot a look of bewilderment toward officials.
Fixing that will probably take an attitude adjustment. Tatum is big enough and has the athleticism to deploy a stronger brand of finishing, but occasionally dialing it back would help too.
“[The] majority is over-penetrating, playing in the crowd, as I talk about quite often. Just not keeping it simple,” Boston coach Ime Udoka said of his team’s turnover issues earlier in the Finals. “You look at Game 1 where we had 33 assists on 43 baskets, crisp and sharp with our ball movements, not in the crowd.”
That same analysis applies to Tatum. He has a mid-range game he should trust when matchups demand it. Sure, it’s probably smart to focus on getting free throws, layups and threes, but three-level scoring is exponentially more important in the heat of the postseason.
A more careful approach would help with the turnover issues too. Tatum often dribbled into a crowd, seemingly panicked and lost the ball.
On certain plays, maintaining his dribble would’ve helped. On others, fundamentals like a good old-fashioned triple-threat position and some patience may have given teammates more time to provide him a release valve.
As he gains more experience with being a primary playmaker (as he was throughout the postseason), he’ll learn how to better read those situations.
A Man With No Name @SnottieDrippen
Right. As he matures, he’ll get a better feel for when to make plays for others and when to really look for his own. And hopefully coach can concoct an offensive scheme that puts him in better spots, so he’s not dribbling 10 to 12 times and grinding the O to a halt https://t.co/8hvVFdN2Qv
He already is getting better. Prior to these playoffs, Tatum’s regular-season career high for assists per game was 4.4. This postseason, he averaged 6.2. In Boston’s Game 1 win over the Warriors, he had 13 dimes.
He doesn’t need to be a LeBron-type point forward, but if defenses know he’s willing and capable of finding teammates, he’ll be more difficult to guard.
Shooting 45.5 percent from three in the Finals (and 39.3 percent for the playoffs) is no small thing either. A few more mid-range looks wouldn’t hurt, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of good shots from beyond the arc. From a macro level, the moneyballing of Tatum’s game over the last few years has been a plus.
Now, it’s about fine-tuning.
Once you ascend to the level Tatum did in 2021-22, identifying the next areas for improvement can feel nitpicky. But that’s exactly what needs to happen.
He’s only 24 years old, and he made it to the Finals while tying for fourth in playoff value over replacement player. Luka Doncic and Ja Morant are the only players in the top 10 of that list who are younger.
This was not a good series from Tatum, but it’s also not indicative of who he is. Or, more importantly, who he can become.