NBA

Poor Jayson Tatum

Jayson Tatum of the Celtics contemplates failure.
Photo: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty

Poor Jayson Tatum. Man. He’s had an excellent run in these playoffs, he’s clearly headed for superstardom, and anyway his team is only down one game in what looks like it will be a long and competitive Eastern Conference Finals series. Still: Poor Jayson Tatum. He went for the hero-ball shot at the end of regulation. Then he learned his lesson and went for the decisive, gutsy drive at the end of overtime. And what he got for his troubles was the nastiest reverse-posterization in at least a decade, if not ever. Whatever else he becomes—and almost every lofty outcome is very much still on the table—he will also be the guy who got absolutely stoned at the rim by Bam Adebayo in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.

There’s something bitterly unfair about how this all went down. With the score tied at 106 and 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Kemba Walker held the ball well above the break in order to ensure that whatever shot the Celtics created would be the last of regulation. By this point in the game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was frustrated by his team’s lack of ball and player movement, something he identified after the fact as a contributing factor in Miami’s 14-point fourth-quarter comeback. It’s a recurring problem in late-game situations for these Celtics, when Tatum and Walker in particular tend to get googly-eyed about dropping in photogenic isolation daggers, instead of going through the motions of the regular offense. To hear Stevens tell it, there’s more going on than defensive adjustments: “Switching is part of it, but we need to handle it better. There was too much pounding the ball. Also, not enough space the way the Heat were guarding us late.”

Walker holding the ball 30 feet from the cup while precious seconds ticked away would therefore not seem to be what Stevens had in mind for his offense with a chance to grab the series lead late in a tied playoff game. There’s also the matter of trusting the players on the court to make the right reads and seize the moment, and maybe this was that. At any rate, the matchup on the floor had lightly used wing Derrick Jones Jr. guarding the ultra-quick but recently shaky Walker in an isolation, which looks on paper like an advantage for the Celtics. After about 15 seconds of everyone standing perfectly still, the Celtics sent Tatum out to engineer an automatic switch by screening Jones. Jimmy Butler, guarding Tatum, switched onto Walker; Jones switched onto Tatum; Walker handed the ball back to Tatum; and with the board thus aligned, Tatum began sizing Jones up for an isolation attack. Tatum is maybe not quite the mismatch for Jones that Walker is, but this still looks like an advantageous position for the Celtics. Tatum had the floor spread and space to get going toward the bucket. Here’s how he used it:

It’s boomer shit to get too worked up over late-clock isolations taking the place of coherent, fluid offense, but still: That’s an objectively lousy outcome for an NBA offense operating with nearly an entire shot clock in a late game situation, and not just because Tatum’s pull-up didn’t fall. One screen, one pass, and a 28-foot contested jumper is not exactly giving yourself the best chance at a win. Tatum is a good ball-handler and finisher and he had solid shooters stationed around the arc; if the operating theory is that Tatum can be trusted to make the right play in clutch situations—and it sounds like it was—it would’ve made sense to set him up earlier in the possession, so that he’d have time to collapse the defense or make more than one move. It’s difficult bordering on impossible to believe “the right decision” in this scenario was that shot.

It’s fun to think that karma was responsible for putting the ball back in Tatum’s hands late in overtime, above the break, with the Celtics in even more dire need of a bucket. It’s even more fun to think that the awkward memory of his bad shot minutes earlier, and perhaps some encouragement from Stevens, guided Tatum’s decision-making in a different direction on this second try. However that went, with 12 seconds left in overtime and the Celtics down two, the ball found Tatum at the top of the key, guarded by Jones, with a chance at redemption. The Celtics did something stupid here—they dragged Walker across the court, pulling Butler into the play and onto Tatum—but no matter: This time, Tatum put his head down, put the ball on the floor, ripped off a left-to-right crossover, and beat his man to the cup, with a full head of steam and only Bam Adebayo between him and glory. And Tatum, God love him, wasn’t settling for a floater. It’s Hammer Time!

OOF. I think by law Tatum is no longer allowed to attempt dunks in NBA basketball games, assuming he can even reach the rim anymore after such a humiliation. That Adebayo did not break his wrist on this play is either a sign of superhuman bone composition or an actual miracle. His left wrist! He blocked Tatum with his off hand!

The Heat are a tremendous defensive team, and you are doing their work for them if you settle for a long contested pull-up jumper when you’ve got time to try for anything else. Tatum probably had that lesson ringing in his head late in overtime, when he made the correct decision to force the issue, with his team down a bucket. And that’s the prize! Tatum tried it the passive way and owned himself, then he tried it the aggressive way and got owned! Brutal.