Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum could have had his moment

BOSTON — With just over a minute left in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Celtics head coach Ime Udoka pulled his starter. That means Jayson Tatum has a minute to sit alone and feel the weight of the disappointment that comes with losing.

“It hurts,” Tatum said. “With this team, we’ve been through the season to get this far. Just knowing how bad we wanted it to be and it failed so quickly. It’s a horrible feeling.”

Saying that, he lowered his head and stared at the table behind him.

A few minutes ago, Tatum had to endure the humiliation of watching another team, the Golden State Warriors, celebrate winning a championship at home. He politely congratulated his opponent, then walked away blankly. Tatum didn’t even respond when a fan reached out from the stands and grabbed the towel on his shoulder.

He struggled during the Finals, often guarded by Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins. In the deciding game, Tatum had only 13 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds, and 5 turnovers. It ended a tough series where he struggled to find rhythm on offense. At 24, he’s a cornerstone of Boston’s young core, and this could be his moment.

On June 1, the day before the finals, Tatum told the media that he wanted to be honest.

“I have questioned many times whether I am fit to lead such a team,” he said. “You know, never, like, doubting yourself, but not long after some losses and the tougher parts of the season. It’s human nature to doubt yourself.”

He said it was important to “always stick to what you believe in and trust the work you do”.

Then he continued.

“You know, it can’t rain forever.”

The Celtics had a rough start to the season, losing the first two games and 19 losses by early January. They’re 18-21 and seem destined for an early offseason. But under Tatum, they turned things around. They roared in the second half of the season and secured the No. 2 seed in the East.

The playoffs looked like a daunting challenge, but Tatum’s Celtics, the hottest team in the league, could have stepped up. In the end, they didn’t get there.

“One of the things he’s been doing all season is seeing multiple different reports and figuring it out,” Udoka said. “He’s done that in the first couple of series. It’s been a rough. Very consistent team that did something to limit him and make the others pay.

“For him, it’s just continuing to grow and understand that you’re going to see that in your career. It’s just the beginning.”

Tatum already has a compelling resume. He has been named an NBA All-Star for the past three seasons. He was also named to the All-NBA First Team this year, as Tatum won the Eastern Conference Finals Most Valuable Player Award for his performance against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

He averaged 26.9 points per game in the regular season and only 2.9 turnovers per game. His turnovers are lower than most players with a higher average than him.

When asked what the Celtics needed to improve, Tatum said, “I think it’s just the level of balance we have throughout the series and the series before that, including myself. Take care of the ball, that sort of thing.”

Finals turnovers are a problem for the entire Celtics. Boston has lost the final three games of the series, turning 15 in Game 4, 18 in Game 5 and 22 in Game 6. The Golden State Warriors also had moments of carelessness, but they reacted enough to recover.

“Looking back, it’s easy to see all the things you could have done better,” Tatum said. “We tried. I know it’s true.”

Singling out Tatum’s offense would miss a range of defensively inclined contexts. Boston couldn’t score 100 points after Game 3. The Celtics kept Golden State’s scoring average at 104.8 points per game, down from its regular-season average of 111.

Tatum was also able to impact games without scoring early in the series. The Celtics had 120 points in Game 1, their highest-scoring game in the Finals. Tatum had only 12 points. The Golden State Warriors guard makes Tatum uncomfortable, whether he’s trying to get to the rim or shoot from the outside. He started looking for his teammates and had 13 assists.

But as the series progressed, the Golden State Warriors began to strip him of other options, making Boston pay for its mistakes.

Tatum averaged 26 points per game from Games 2 to 5, but it’s hard to make a big difference, especially with the stakes up.

That’s a different story from earlier in the playoffs. When the Celtics were eliminated in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Tatum had 46 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. He shot 53.1 percent from the field that game.

It’s a feat he can’t match the Golden State Warriors. Even during the Finals, Tatum seemed hesitant to shoot for him, opting instead to find teammates. He also struggles to finish games at the rim.

“We can all do better,” Tatum said. “I feel like I could have done better.”

Tatum injured his right shoulder during the Eastern Conference finals, but he wouldn’t blame that injury for his struggles. When asked if he needed surgery, he said he didn’t think so.

Instead, frustrated after being so close to winning his first title, Tatum only spoke in general terms about the need for improvement and how difficult the night was.

His teammates offered support.

“Just gave him a hug, man,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said. “I know the last game was tough. I know, obviously, it was a game that we felt we could have won.”

His coach also had words of encouragement.

“The growth he’s shown as a playmaker this year and in certain areas, I think that’s the next step for him,” Udoka said. “Just figure that out, get to where some of the veterans are, they’ve seen it all and embraced their lumps early in their careers.”

He added: “High-IQ, smart people will learn from that and figure it out. I think that’s going to push him forward, it’s definitely motivating him.”

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