When the team is released in the coming days, Tatum could be named the best player on the first team and make these playoffs with a chance to add some iconic moments to his portfolio. He certainly had some finesse, including his 46-point explosion in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Bucks when Boston faced elimination.
But his inconsistency and his inability to take care of the ball also hurt the Celtics. His low point came on Saturday, when he went 3-for-14 from the field, missed shots in the second half, and had six turnovers.
“It’s unacceptable,” Tatum said. “Honestly, I have to play better. I feel like I left these guys up in the air tonight. That’s my thing.”
Opponents continued to throw wave after wave of defenders at Tatum, determined to let the others beat them. It’s hardly a new approach, but swarms have increased in frequency and intensity during these playoffs.
Tatum often looks easy enough to find gaps in these double-teams, or just watch them and throw pinpoint passes to ignite new action for his teammates. But often during this postseason, he just looks confused.
In Boston’s 14 playoff games, he had at least six turnovers in five of them and had an NBA-high 60 points total. His 4.3 attempts per game are the highest among the remaining players.
Tatum acknowledged that in a game like Saturday, when Boston trailed by 26 in the first half and climbed the hill the rest of the time, it could disrupt the flow and lead to more mistakes. He’s not alone: Boston committed a season-high 24 turnovers as a team.
“[We were] Playing really fast, trying to get back in shape,” he said. “But every time we come to a crowded place, we talk about how we couldn’t recover in one game and we have to keep playing the right way. It’s not going to happen at our fingertips. But clearly, human nature plays a role. You’re so depressed you just want to come back so bad that sometimes you move a little too fast. “
Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said it’s important for Tatum to have solid connections with his teammates early in the game, partly to get them involved early and partly to open up for himself later in the game. When the complementary part starts shooting open, it suddenly presents the defense with tough decisions about how to approach Tatum.
But the Heat’s tough, physical approach to defense usually leaves its mark, but will remain strong on that end of the court.
“I have to play better,” Tatum said. “It’s that simple. At this time of the season, everything is at stake and I have to play better. “
Tatum’s presence was crucial for Boston during the regular season. The Celtics outscored opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions when Tatum was on the floor, and 1.9 points better when he sat down. No other Celtics rotation player has an on/off split anywhere close to a 14-point gap.
But during the playoffs, the Celtics were actually better off with Tatum on the bench. They have a +5.9 net rating when he’s on the floor and a +9.3 when he’s not.
Tatum can excel in isolations, but a team like the Heat can deploy lineups that can switch at every position, making it more challenging to find glaring dislocations. And there’s always someone willing to help.
Still, Udoka believes his young star can figure this out before it’s too late.
“One of the things he’s done is bounce back really well and we’re looking forward to doing that with him,” Udoka said. “Competitive guy, obviously. One of the best players in the league. He understands that an opportunity is lost. Guys don’t play well every night. . . . I don’t have to say too much about him. All [upset] He probably has more than anyone about it. Looking forward to a good response. “
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Udoka said guard Marcus Smart “sprained badly” in the third quarter of Game 3 and was dealing with some swelling on Sunday. The status of his fourth game on Monday was unclear. Center Robert Williams, who missed Game 3 with a sore knee, is feeling better now, but still on a daily basis.