Three Burning Questions Celtics Need Jayson Tatum to Answer to Salvage NBA Finals

A Sherrod BlakelyContributor IJune 8, 2022

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

BOSTON—Paul Pierce is no stranger to the occasional exaggeration when he’s describing NBA talent. But the way he has consistently boasted about Jayson Tatum resonates a little differently than his usual praise for NBA newbies. He doesn’t speak about the Celtics forward in terms of being a very good player.

Pierce believes Tatum’s game has the potential to surpass Celtic luminaries such as Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, and himself.

“I really believe he’s going to win a championship in Boston and end up one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Celtic to ever play this game,” Pierce said back in March. “He has that type of potential, man. … He’s got everything.”

Maybe so, but it certainly hasn’t manifested itself thus far in the NBA Finals, where Tatum has struggled mightily.

In the first two games, Tatum is averaging 20.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game. Not bad. That is until you factor in him shooting just 30.6 percent from the field, which is almost 15 percentage points lower than his season average (45.3 percent).

Boston will need the 24-year-old to shoot better going forward if the Celtics are to maintain control of the series with a win tonight.

That’s just one of several topics as part of the discussion and debate about Tatum heading into tonight’s pivotal Game 3.

Here are the three biggest questions Tatum faces heading into tonight against Golden State.

Why Has Tatum Struggled with His Shot? 

Tatum has proven himself to be one of the NBA’s better scorers because of his ability to get buckets in a multitude of ways. This past season, Tatum averaged a career-high 26.9 points per game, which ranked seventh in the NBA.

But beyond his overall scoring acumen, Tatum is no different than most NBA players when it comes to having a sweet spot or two on the court.

Finishing at the rim has been one of the knocks on Tatum early in his career. But the last two seasons, it's actually one of the more noticeable areas of growth in his game. He finished the regular season shooting 65.8 percent on shots taken five feet or less from the rim. Last season, he shot 65.9 percent at the rim, a 10.5-point jump from the previous season.

In the playoffs, Tatum is shooting just 58.5 percent within five feet of the rim. Not only has this impacted his scoring, but often those missed shots in the paint lead to turnovers and transition scoring opportunities for their opponent.

Andrew Wiggins has spent the most time defending Tatum and has been surprisingly effective. The Warriors have gone with man-to-man coverage on Tatum with an occasional double-team or blitz. The goal is to force a turnover, or at a minimum, continue to keep Tatum from getting into any kind of rhythm.

It’s working.

"It's tough. It's tough," Wiggins said when asked about defending Tatum. "You've just got to try and make it hard for him. He has a lot of stuff he can do. He can score at all three levels. Just try to be there and make it hard."

Is Tatum Making an Impact Defensively? 

Boston head coach Ime Udoka's decision to have center Robert Williams III patrol the paint akin to free safety in football provided a back line that has been one of the keys to Boston’s top-rated defense.

But the role that Tatum has played defensively is a piece of the Celtics puzzle often overlooked because he is such a dynamic scorer.

His length, lateral quickness, and improved focus on that end of the floor is why Tatum's defense was the main reason he saw action during his early years with the Celtics.

His defensive rating this season (103.4) was his best since he was a rookie (100.8), with a career-best net rating this season of plus-12.1.

Tatum’s defensive ratings in Games 1 and 2? 113.6 and 123.6, respectively.

He has alternated between sticking with Klay Thompson in Game 1 while spending more time on Stephen Curry in Game 2. Thompson has struggled with his shot as much as Tatum, and missed three of his four shot attempts when defended by Tatum in Game 1.

Curry had 29 points in three-quarters of play in Game 2, and missed three of his four shot attempts when defended by Tatum.

If Tatum can continue to make things tough on at least half of Golden State's one-two punch of Curry and Thompson, he's providing value to the Celtics when he's not making shots. And that's part of Tatum's overall growth and evolution into a player worthy of being named to the all-NBA First Team as he was this year.

4th Quarter Scoring

Tatum simply has to be more consistent than what we've seen thus far in playoff 4th quarters.

Take Game 5 against Milwaukee in the second round, or Game 6 against Miami in the east semis: both were Boston losses in which Tatum was nowhere to be found in the fourth quarter.

In the three losses to Milwaukee, Tatum averaged 5.7 points in the fourth quarter. In the four wins, he averaged 10.3.

It was more of the same in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami when he averaged just 3.3 points in their three losses.

Big picture, this entire postseason run has been a series of validation moments that either soften or strengthen the argument for Tatum's status as one of the game’s best players. It's easy to say he's just 24 and well ahead of schedule, regardless of whether he can carry Boston when it matters most in Finals 4th quarters.

But Tatum's not dodging the pressure.

“If you win a championship, they can debate a lot of things,” he said. “They can't debate whether or not you're a champion.”


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