Jayson Tatum has proven he’s teetering on the level of NBA superstardom.
The Boston Celtics wing put together a signature performance in a must-win Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He then dished out eight assists the next time on the floor to lift Boston to the conference finals. Those performances showcased Tatum at his best as both a shot-maker and playmaker.
But the highlights this postseason have come with some lowlights, too. Tatum, who certainly has impacted winning more than losing during the 2022 playoffs, has struggled with consistency as depicted Saturday when the Celtics lost to the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Tatum finished with 10 points on 21% from the field (3-for-14) in nearly 41 minutes. It also marked Tatum’s fourth game this postseason where he had six or more turnovers. Boston is .500 in those four games.
The Celtics’ tandem of Jaylen Brown and Tatum combined for 13 of the team’s 24 turnovers. The Heat scored 33 points off those giveaways (19 steals!) in a 109-103 victory at TD Garden. It was easy to see that’s where the game was decided, along with a brutal first quarter.
Tatum did not score a basket in the second half either, and that was without Miami having lockdown defender Jimmy Butler. Instead, Heat forward P.J. Tucker held Tatum scoreless on 37 possessions with Max Strus holding Tatum to a mere 1-for-5 shooting on 11 possessions, according to Barstool Sports’ Dan Greenberg.
“I have to play better,” Tatum said after the loss. “I feel like I left the guys hanging tonight and that’s on me. I acknowledge that; that was a tough one.”
The defensive end, an area where Tatum clearly has developed, was not much better for the 24-year-old. He was a minus-17 in the opening 6:32 as the Heat turned Celtics turnarounds and missed bunnies into points in transition. Tatum seemingly was not engaged, as shared in a video by MassLive’s Brian Robb.
Those sorts of lapses, while already facing a 21-point deficit just 20 minutes into a pivotal Game 3, cannot happen for Boston’s best player.
“I just have to play better. Simple as that,” Tatum said. “This time of the season, everything on the line, I just have to play better.”
Almost incredibly, though, was the fact that Boston may have been able to steal Game 3 despite allowing 39 first-quarter points and finishing with 24 turnovers. It was quite similar to Game 3 against the Bucks in which Tatum scored 10 points (21% from field) with three turnovers and the Celtics allowed Milwaukee to outscore them by 17 points in the third quarter. If Tatum was able to put together even a below-average but not horrific performance Saturday night, the Celtics may have been able to come away with a late-night theft.
Following that performance against the Bucks, Tatum responded by averaging 33.3 points per game on 48% from the field while limiting his turnovers to 3.5 per contest in the final four games. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s allowed Celtics teammates to see how Tatum is capable of responding.
“I have the utmost confidence in my guys,” veteran Al Horford said Saturday. “Time and time again, (Jaylen Brown) figures it out, Jayson figures it out. Those guys are battle-tested.”
The Celtics, now facing a 2-1 deficit in the best-of-seven set, will hope that proves true again Monday as Boston hosts Miami at TD Garden for a crucial Game 4.