Celtics’ Jayson Tatum is not a superstar (yet

Is Jayson Tatum in the rarefied air of NBA superstardom?
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More than in previous seasons, these playoffs exposed frauds masquerading as superstars. The list is long — Donovan Mitchell, Zach LaVine, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker. You can add Jayson Tatum to that list. After putting on a blitzkrieg throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, his game fell apart in the Finals. His .367 shooting from the field was embarrassing and barely propped up a 21.5 ppg average. Even worse, he shot 31.6 percent from two. Many thought Tatum had reached superstardom this season. Instead, he fell victim to Andrew Wiggins’ defense. He finished Thursday’s Game 6 series loss with 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting, seven assists, three rebounds, and five turnovers.

Let’s not bury the lead here — his 100 total turnovers were the most any player has recorded in NBA postseason history. His historic turnover output was best personified by his travel with 3:32 left in Game Six. After Tatum spiked the ball in frustration. He would end the game with five turnovers.

Of course, losing to this three-time championship Warriors team is nothing to be ashamed of. But they did steal Game 1. And then they took a 2-1 series lead, only to lose the series at home by double-digit fashion in six games. They lost every game by double digits this series. And throughout it all, Tatum, at least the one we’d grown accustomed to, was nowhere to be found. For reference, he went 1-8 for two points in the second half of Game 6. He only managed 18 fourth-quarter points for the series on 24 percent shooting.

It wasn’t just Tatum’s offense that was troublesome. His 25 turnovers a series is unacceptable and shows a lack of focus and decision-making typically unheard of for superstars. While Tatum is generally stoic, rarely displaying emotion on the court, his on-court output was immaturity. Far too often, he tried to shoot his way out of a slump, freezing his teammates out of offensive fluidity. He did this in games 1 (3-17), 3 (9-23), and 4 (8-23).

Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s thoughts on Tatum?

“One thing that he’s always done throughout the season was seeing multiple different coverages and figured it out,” Udoka said. “He did that throughout the first few series. This was a rough one. Very consistent team that did some things to limit him and make others pay. For him, it’s just continuing to grow and understand you’re going to see this for the rest of your career. This is just a start.”

That Tatum, the Celtics’ undisputed best player, and on-court leader, wasn’t the leading scorer for the Finals is a testament to how unprepared he was to carry the team on the biggest stage. Instead, Jaylen Brown led the team in scoring with 23.5 ppg. Tatum was the leading scorer for every other series but couldn’t step up when it was needed most.

Tatum should be congratulated for turning the Celtics’ season around and getting them to the Finals. This was the best statistical season of his career. It’s tough as hell to win a championship without a bona fide All-Star level second option. Brown is good, but not great. Without another superstar on the team, the Celts needed Tatum to perform as advertised during the regular season and playoffs to have a puncher’s chance at beating the Warriors. In the 18 games of a playoff before the Finals, he averaged 27 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game, earning Eastern Conference finals MVP against the Miami Heat. There was no reason to expect that momentum not to continue.

Unfortunately, Wiggins was standing in his way. The Canadian reclamation project filled his playoff resume with lock-down assignments against Jarren Jackson Jr. and Luka Dončić. After an exhaustion series slowing down Dončić and shutting him down as a facilitator, Tatum had to look like barbecue chicken. That’s not to say Tatum is a pushover. He’s just not on Dončić’s level after the Slovanian wunderkind averaged 32 ppg, 9.2 rpg, and six apg in the Western Conference Finals.

Tatum’s historic choke might have been the most glaring case of fraudulent superstar activity of the 2022 season. And that’s saying a lot with Devin Booker’s WCF on the list. But Tatum was always a surer bet when it came to being the man. His poise, maturity, and shot selection made him the closest thing to Kobe Bryant we have in the league. Even Bryant had four airballs in crunch time as a rookie against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals.

The 24-year-old Tatum has been in the league for five seasons, and he’s gotten better every year by increasing his points, assists, and rebounds yearly. He’s made three straight All-Star Games and, even more impressive, First Team All-NBA this year. Tatum will have his turn. He’s just not there yet. These types of playoff losses eat at the soul of future champions. Ask Curry, Thompson, and Green, who lost under Mark Jackson before winning under Steve Kerr. In the not too far future, Tatum will be back in the Finals. The hope is that he returns a superstar. 

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