The Celtics needed a heroic performance from Jayson Tatum, their resident superstar and All-NBA first-teamer, in order to seize control of their NBA Finals series with the Warriors.
They needed the type of performance Steph Curry (43 points, 10 in the fourth quarter) delivered, allowing the Warriors to tie the series heading back to San Francisco for Game 5.
Only Tatum didn’t match that cape-on, put-the-team-on-your-back, rise-to-the-occasion type of effort Golden State got from their veteran star.
Clinging to a five-point lead with 7:32 to go in the game, Tatum wasn’t the closer the Celtics desperately needed on the floor. He wasn’t the same player who took down the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of that series with a brilliant 46-point effort.
Instead, he struggled down the stretch and couldn’t come through during crunch time.
Of his 23 points, only three came in the fourth quarter, as Tatum connected on just one of five attempts. Shooting 8-for-23 overall in what could have been a kill-shot type of game up 2-1 in the series isn’t going to get the job done.
Neither is having a Marcus Smart 3-point launch party with the game on the line as both Tatum and Jaylen Brown remained silent leaving others to try and win the game.
Celtics head coach Ime Udoka had taken both Tatum and Brown aside following a time out at that crucial juncture in the fourth quarter with the team up by five, to maybe try and light a fire under his two stars.
Or maybe he once again suggested they stop playing like A-holes, as he did to the group in Game 3.
Whether Udoka went to the insult, or propped them both up, it didn’t work with the C’s being outscored 21-6 from that point on.
Tatum just couldn’t find the proper balance or rhythm between shooting and passing. And that was how it was much of the time in the Celtics’ 107-97 loss to the Warriors, with the series now tied 2-all.
“Him being the player he is, these are the moments where he has to come alive and figure it out,” said Smart, who had 18 points. “He will. We don’t know when it is, but we’re sure it’s going to happen soon, we’re ready for it, and we’re here to back him up.”
Tatum can’t come alive soon enough, especially with two of the remaining three games – if it goes that far – out west.
Along with his 11 rebounds and 6 assists, Tatum also committed six of the team’s 16 turnovers, the latter being a sign of his indecision at times.
“Give them credit, they’re a great team. They’re playing well. They got a game plan, things like that,” Tatum said following the loss. “But it’s on me. I got to be better. I know I’m impacting the game in other ways, but I got to be more efficient, shoot the ball better, finish at the rim better.
“I take accountability for that. I just look forward to Monday. Leave this one behind us. Learn from it, watch the film, things like that, but everybody probably feels like they got to be better, myself included. Just go get it on Monday.”
BOSTON, MA – June 10: Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (5) knocks the ball from Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) as the Celtics take on the Warriors in game 4 of the NBA Championships at the Boston Garden on June 10, 2022 in , BOSTON, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
The C’s led by five at the half, trailed by one after the third quarter, quickly took a lead in the fourth, and just couldn’t keep it together. The offense was stagnant, losing the ball movement that’s made them so successful.
Udoka was asked about Tatum’s struggles at the rim, and harkened back to a familiar theme with his star.
“At times he’s looking for fouls. They are a team that loads up in certain games,” Udoka said. “He’s finding the outlets. Shooting over two, three guys. That’s the balance of being aggressive and picking your spots and doing what he’s done in previous games, which is kicked it out and got wide-open looks.
“That’s the ongoing theme so to speak, him getting to the basket, being a scorer as well as a playmaker. They do a good job with their rotations. Sometimes hunting fouls instead of going to finish. I’ve seen that in a few games so far.”
Whatever the case, Tatum has had a tough time in the paint, going to the basket, and trying to make something happen.
He certainly wasn’t getting to the free throw line for his efforts, with just five attempts from the charity stripe.
“At times, in moments we need most, we rely on Jayson to be aggressive,” said Brown. “We have to help him out by being in position to be spaced and successful. We’ll watch the film, use it as an opportunity to get better.”
While the Green team has weathered a cold-shooting Tatum (seven second-half points) before, Game 1 being the prime instance, the cream still has to rise to the top eventually.
The Celtics need Tatum to take control – just as Curry did with Golden State’s backs against the wall – during the pivotal junctures of games.
Brown (21 points) and Derrick White (16 points) kept the C’s in, along with Smart, but with three games left in the championship series, Tatum’s presence remains the most crucial if the Green team plans on hoisting Banner 18.
At age 24, is it too much to ask of Tatum? Is he still too young, too inexperienced to do what Curry did? Is he not ready to assume that kind of mantle?
Maybe. But he certainly believes it’s his time to deliver. He knows he has to do more. And perhaps he’s pressing a bit too much to make it happen.
Tatum, however, disagreed with that notion.
“I just got to be better. I know I can be better, so it’s not like I, myself or my team is asking me to do something I’m not capable of,” he said. “They know the level and I know the level that I can play at. It’s kind of on me to do that more often than not just to help my team in the best way that I can.
“It’s not too much pressure at all. It’s kind of like my job.”
That’s right. For better or worse, he’s the Celtics carry-the-team superstar.
The good news is there’s still time to show it.