But this postseason has marked a delineation point, in which talk of Tatum’s potential has been superseded by the reality of his blossoming superstardom in playoff series victories against Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks and Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat. With the NBA Finals knotted at 2 heading into Monday’s Game 5 at Chase Center, the Celtics find themselves needing more than ever from Tatum, whose play against the Golden State Warriors has left something to be desired.
During past playoff runs, Tatum was effective and reliable without stealing the show in the biggest moments. In the 2018 East finals, the young Celtics collapsed against LeBron James, no great sin. The following year, Tatum, along with the rest of Boston, was helpless to stop Kyrie Irving’s implosion. In the 2020 East finals, Tatum moved into a more central role but fizzled at times down the stretch against the Heat. Last year, he had a magnificent 50-point effort against the Nets, but the Celtics were swiftly eliminated in the first round.
At every step, Tatum was impressive for his age: precocious but not quite ready yet. There has been a different feel this postseason: Tatum opened with a bang — pirouetting his way into a buzzer-beating layup in a Game 1 victory over the Nets — and hasn’t looked back.
The 24-year-old forward outplayed Durant in a first-round sweep, and he earned serious stripes in the conference semifinals against the Bucks, scoring 30 points in Game 4 to even the series before pouring in 46 points in Game 6. Then, in a grueling rematch of the 2020 East finals, Tatum won Larry Bird MVP honors by leading Boston to a Game 7 victory over Miami with 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Butler had gaudier individual scoring performances, but Tatum was the steadier force.
That led to the Celtics’ first Finals appearance since 2010 and a date with the Warriors, who evened the series Friday thanks to Stephen Curry’s 43-point masterpiece in Game 4. A dominant individual performance like Curry’s can change the course of a series, and it came against a vaunted Boston defense that has pulled out all the stops to slow the two-time MVP. Tatum, by contrast, has yet to play his best basketball against the Warriors, who are equally intent on holding him in check.
Through four games against the Warriors, Tatum is averaging 22.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists while shooting just 34.1 percent. Tatum moved the ball well and racked up 13 assists in a Game 1 win, and he held off a Warriors rally in Game 3 with timely fourth-quarter baskets. On the whole, however, he often has struggled to make his presence felt offensively. Boston’s attack was disjointed in Game 4, with Tatum committing six turnovers and disappearing down the stretch.
“It’s on me,” Tatum said after Game 4. “I’ve got to be better. I know I’m impacting the game in other ways, but I’ve got to be more efficient, shoot the ball better, finish at the rim better. I take accountability for that.”
Many of Tatum’s giveaways have come when he has tried to force the issue off the dribble or made errant passes after misreading Golden State’s defense. When the mistakes piled up Friday, Tatum deferred to Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart down the stretch, going scoreless over the last 10 minutes. Cast as Boston’s headlining counterpart to Curry, Tatum was reduced to a bystander as Golden State closed with a 17-3 push.
Although Tatum has displayed real progress when it comes to shot selection and distribution, he’s naturally wired as a score-first wing. Boston’s offense peaks when the ball is moving and the three-point shots are falling from every direction, but it needs more of what Tatum does best.
Tatum consistently found success when isolated against Curry in Game 3, and Golden State has used double teams and respected his three-point range throughout the series. Still, there have been plenty of frustrating moments when Tatum has tried to score in traffic. In the Finals, Tatum is shooting just 14 for 51 (27.5 percent) on all shots inside the arc and 5 for 28 (17.9 percent) on shots taken from five to 19 feet.
Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said Sunday that Tatum is occasionally guilty of “looking for fouls” and must seek “stronger finishes” when he attacks the paint, though he cautioned against “equating missing shots to playing poorly.”
“Don’t be opposed to taking twos,” Udoka said when asked Friday for his message to Tatum. “Pull-up jumpers instead of going all the way to the rim. We talked about the balance, how much we rely on him to score and get other guys involved. Sometimes that balance leads to taking some [tough] shots or over-penetrating when he has a clean pull-up. Nothing wrong with the floater or midrange pull-up to get yourself going, especially when the crowd is sitting there at the rim.”
Tatum’s most electric showing in these playoffs — his 46-point explosion against the Bucks — came in a moment of maximum duress. Boston was facing elimination on the road against the defending champions, and Tatum restored order with a shot-making flurry. Curry’s Game 4 takeover has pushed Boston into a similar predicament, requiring Tatum to deliver another counterpunch if he wants to complete this memorable postseason run with his first title.
“[Game 4] was a tough loss,” Tatum said Sunday. “We understand that. We’ve been here before. We know what it takes. We know what we have to do. I’m confident like I’ve been all playoffs. It’s a big test for us.”