Jayson Tatum wilted in the NBA Finals. There is no way around it. He went Jello-legged vs. the Warriors and finally cracked after six straight weeks of double- and triple-teams. Improving for next season can wait. He should spend the next month in a Luke Skywalker bacta tank.
Because he vanished on the biggest stage, passing up open shots and scoring just 13 points in Thursday’s Game 6 clincher, he has understandably come under criticism, with the most pointed barbs focusing on his perceived lack of a killer instinct, which in turn has raised the question of whether he’s good enough to lead a team to a title.
I could charitably chalk these questions up to the heat of the moment. Alternatively, I could call them what they are — lunacy.
Tatum’s killer instinct was not in question when he went mano-a-mano with Kevin Durant in a first-round sweep of the Nets. Tatum won Game 1 at the buzzer and harassed Durant into his worst postseason shooting performance in 12 years.
Nor did we question if he had what it takes when he dropped 46 points on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Bucks in an elimination Game 6 on the road, which remains the most sublime Celtics performance of this entire run.
We also had nothing but praise for him after he went into Miami and dropped a 26, 10 and 6 on the Heat in a wire-to-wire Game 7 victory. Perhaps you have already forgotten his last two baskets, but they were mammoth — a 3-pointer with Miami rallying, and then a silky fallaway over Jimmy Butler, both to beat the shot clock. He earned his series MVP trophy.
The killer instinct concept is so nebulous. Was the placid Tim Duncan a killer? He won five championships without raising his voice, but I guess so. Magic Johnson went by the moniker of Tragic after a no-show vs. the Celtics in the 1984 Finals, and he had already won two titles! He erased those questions by winning three more. It is easy to forget, but LeBron James supposedly lacked that certain something — why does he pass so much in crunch time? — Until finally winning the first of his four crowns in 2012.
Tatum has not wired like Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, players who wore their competitiveness like trumpeter swans; if Tatum ever tells us anything is possible, it will be in a shrugged whisper. The idea that he should conform to someone else’s idea of a killer is absurd. The goofy Dirk Nowitzki won it all, and so did the stoic Kawhi Leonard. There is room for Tatum’s personality, too.
In any event, when the Finals began, even if his Celtics had not always chosen the easiest path, Tatum had answered every challenge. He continued finding a way in Game 1, overcoming woeful 3-for-17 shooting to tally a career-high 13 assists in a stolen victory. He added 26 points and nine assists two games later to put the C’s briefly in control of the series before tires started flying in every direction late in Game 4.
There is a danger in dismissing every criticism of the Celtics with, “well it couldn’t have been that bad, because they were two wins from a title,”
However, that sentiment absolutely applies to Tatum. He was the best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference, and if he had played even average basketball by his standards in the Finals, we would at the very least be preparing for Game 7 in San Francisco on Sunday.
Instead, attrition finally bested him. It is worth noting that Tatum has played an insane amount of basketball over the last year. The Nets eliminated the Celtics in five games last June — only missing a sweep because Tatum dropped 50 on them in Game 3 — and then he immediately joined Team USA for Tokyo Olympic preparations.
He claimed a gold medal in August and started training camp in September. Only three players played more minutes during the regular season, and no one came close in the playoffs. Tatum went at least 40 minutes 18 times this postseason. Finals MVP Steph Curry, by comparison, reached that number just twice.
Tatum was clearly cooked, and I am not sure why it is an excuse to state the obvious. He front-rimmed fallaways, airballed 3-pointers, and caught the bottom of the rim on his patented swooping drives. He had no legs. That is not lacking will. That is running out of gas.
Celtics fans should be excited for what comes next. Tatum does not get nearly enough credit for the transformation he made as a facilitator practically overnight. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that he would grow as a passer, but now his ceiling is less Carmelo Anthony and more turbocharged Grant Hill. Both are Hall of Famers.
Tatum is on his way there, too. He is only 24 and just cleared the penultimate hurdle after a pair of Eastern Conference Finals losses. All that’s left is to win it all, which is admittedly no small task, but there’s a reason the Celtics are now a legitimate part of that discussion, and it’s not Marcus Smart’s defense, Jaylen Brown’s scoring, or Robert Williams‘ shot-blocking.
They are supporting players orbiting a superstar. The Celtics revolve around Jayson Tatum, and one day soon, the NBA might, too.
Jayson Tatum has what it takes to win a title his way.