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The new Jason Tatum will not be denied

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Game 46 of the regular season is usually insignificant for a 33- to 12-year-old team. There are 82 of these things. Each is its own learning experience and opportunity to develop good habits, and no matter how frustrating a loss or elated at winning, players don’t usually lose sleep over any one contest, especially if they’re dominant MVP candidates averaging 30. per game.

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But for Jason Tatum, Thursday night’s win over the Warriors was a little different.

We take struggled badly during the 2022 NBA Finals, He swings his way to a 39.3 field goal percentage and 15 turnovers in his last three games — and then Tatum laid an egg in his first game against the champions, last month. According to Basketball-Reference’s GameScoreThis was Tatum’s second worst performance of the season. He scored 18 points and blocked 21 shots in a 16-point loss. “Everyone wanted to win so bad,” said Tatum. “It was the first time we played out of character all season. We played tense.”

The Celtics Warriors’ second showdown of the season wasn’t an aesthetic treat either. Tatum turned it over seven times (nearly costing Boston the game with two late head scrapes) and finished 9-for-27 from the field. But despite the flaws, the 24-year-old Corniche gave the Celtics the kind of performance they needed against a Warriors team that, until then, was kryptonite. Instead of sticking to the same approach that resulted in a rough first inning, or repeatedly turning into late solo possessions that tilted the game in Golden State’s favor, Tatum displayed all that makes him special, quickly attacking in a myriad of ways on and off the ball and, ultimately, his reasoning. into his opponent rather than overthinking what he wants to do.

Golden State’s defense has been average this season. But the Warriors’ starting five were out on Thursday, with Jordan Paul (who was a train wreck) replacing Kevon Looney, apparently not helping them in that finish. “I just wanted to break the floor, and give us a little different look,” coach Steve Kerr said of the decision to switch to a small team and dismantle what would be the best five-man unit in the league. “Maybe you get a spark. We’re over the halfway point. We’re .500. You know, let’s try something different. … Against Boston in particular you have to open up the ground. They have [a] Big front line. Big wings.”

But that small group of warriors, led by Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green, held up well. When they step in to get something out, they are as strong as any group in the league. “They’re testing you to make the right play. They’re testing you to be spaced out. They’re testing you to be disciplined,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzola said afterwards.

Against Tatum, this translates to an overly aggressive look that robs his drive lanes, clogs the paint, and makes him think twice whenever he attacks an outwardly favorable match. When Tatum was the ball handler on pick-and-roll, Golden State on Thursday either knocked the ball out of his hands with a glancing step or bleed the shot clock by keeping the screen man level with the catch so Tatum’s initial defender could recover:

It was all uphill, and Tatum kept coming anyway. He got off the ball when the defense asked him to read the floor and trust his team mates. Not everything was smooth sailing and some decisions were forced (it was Boston’s first game of the season with last year’s five-game start), but his overall determination was sound and decisive:

As the game went on, Mazola used Tatum in different ways. Instead of starting catches and spinning runs and letting Golden State (aka Draymond Green) load into the paint (Tatum only ran two of them in the fourth quarter, according to Second Spectrum), he got open stares from Boston’s patented flares, then He turned himself into a checker in small moves with Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, forcing the switches, getting the match he wanted, then attacking:

At once, he became more patient and resolute. On his most important and impressive game, Tatum dismissed a Brogdon screen (which would have likely resulted in the switch to Poole), sprinted to the left, and pressed Green to slide all the way. Al Horford to allow 3 unlocks:

This was someone who refused to compromise, and didn’t want a hard float to lead over two Defenders or a Phased Isolation 3 that likely wouldn’t drop. “You can’t run the same thing over and over against this team and expect it to work,” Tatum said. He adapted all night, forcing Golden State to bounce back in the game’s biggest moments. And in the end, it paid off with a stretch 121-118 victory in overtime.

As with every NBA game, there are dozens of reasons why one team wins and another loses. Horford looked like he was 27, Paul evaporated in the fourth quarter, Rob Williams returned nearly 73 of Tatum’s missed shots, et cetera.

But what Tatum did against the Warriors is significant. He already is He established himself as the most complete star in the NBA, someone who can score at all three levels, draw fouls, bounce in traffic, make plays from anywhere on the floor, defend a career-high five spots, and pretty much anything else the Celtics need. That exact kind of performance — gritty, ineffectual, overpowering a slow start against a bogeyman rival in Final Boss who might still see him again in this year’s Finals — felt necessary, though. “Can you work in chaos?” Mazola asked. “Can you make a mistake and then go back to the front?”

Tatum could have thrown the keys at Jaylen Brown, Brogdon, or Smart and started thinking about Saturday’s game in Toronto. Instead, he finished the game with 34 points, 19 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and a 12-for-12 performance from the streak when all of the Celtics finished 10-for-18.

After the win, Tatum admitted that Golden State was on top of Boston. “The fact of the matter is they beat us in the championship,” he said. TNTChris Haynes. “There’s nothing we can do about it. And I think maybe we were trying to do that in the first game revenge tournament. It’s over with. We lost.”

Although there are still six months to play basketball, this time it feels like we are witnessing a real-time maturation. Tatum made the All-NBA first team the last season. He’s very witty. But he’s also only 24 years old, and he has room to grow and a lot to learn about himself. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Steve Curry and many other all-time greats struggled to win at the highest level until they were in their late twenties. Tatum is ahead of schedule, with time for self-discovery.

He made errors and missed shots on Thursday. But he also acknowledged how Boston’s collective mentality has changed since their last game against the Warriors. “Don’t make it bigger than it really is,” he said. “They all count as one. … Whether we won or lost tonight, we didn’t celebrate or put up a banner or anything. We still get the game on Saturday.”

But at the same time, this meeting gave him a test that no other opponent could do. This time, Tatum passed her by. The Warriors are no longer his waking nightmare. And considering how open the Western Conference has been and how impressive Boston has been all season, that statement may be appropriate a few months from now in a way the Celtics have to feel good about.

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