Finals Notebook: Will fledgling Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum deliver signature moment?

If Jayson Tatum is to help Boston raise an 18th banner, he’ll need to improve on his second half in the Finals.

SAN FRANCISCO – On his journey to becoming one of the NBA’s greatest players, the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum faces both an opportunity and a challenge that could determine if he achieves that goal.

Can Tatum help give the Boston Celtics their 18th NBA championship and retake the lead from the Lakers with a first title in 12 years? With the Celtics and Golden State Warriors tied 2-2 in the NBA Finals, Tatum will play Monday’s Game 5 (9 ET, ABC)? Not to exaggerate the implications, but the Celtics’ upcoming games could go a long way in defining Tatum’s legacy with one of the NBA’s most celebrated franchises.

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“It’s the same pressure I’ve always had,” Tatum said ahead of Sunday’s practice at the Chase Center. “It’s not something I think about when I fall asleep or when I wake up. Of course I want to win by any means and I’ll do whatever it takes. That’s all that’s really important to me right now, winning.”

For the Celtics to win, Tatum will likely need to improve his game. In four NBA Finals games, he has averaged 22.3 points while averaging 33.4% (42.5% 3-points) with 7.8 assists and 7.0 rebounds. Those numbers fall far short of Tatum’s regular-season averages in points (26.9), shooting percentage (45.3%), and rebounds (8.0) — even if they capture a playful jump in assists-per-game ( from 4.4).

“We want the whole package from him,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “He is capable of that and has improved this year. For him, it’s just picking his spots and picking when to be aggressive and when to involve guys and understanding what they’re going to do.

Udoka downplayed Tatum’s performance in Game 1, in which he averaged 12 points in 3-for-12 shooting. Udoka still liked how Tatum excelled as an intermediary en route to 13 assists. Udoka had a different take on Tatum’s previous performances in Game 2 (28 points, 8 from 19 FGs, three assists), Game 3 (26 points, 6 from 23 FGs, nine assists), and Game 4 (23 points, 8-for- 23 FGs, six assists).

Udoka noted that Tatum occasionally “overpowers” and worries too much about drawing fouls instead of playing aggressively. Tatum agreed and promised to make the necessary adjustments

“I’m not necessarily thinking about what that means for my career, just what it means for our team and what we’re trying to achieve,” Tatum said. “You guys are going to be discussing rankings and what that means for your legacy and things like that. Somehow it’s not up to me. I feel like every day I just try to do whatever it takes to win at all costs.”


Thompson is nearing the 3-year anniversary of his first season-ending injury

Game 5 marks the third anniversary of injuring Thompson’s left cruciate ligament in the Warriors’ decisive loss in Game 6 to Toronto in the 2019 NBA Finals. Will the moment prompt Thompson to either express gratitude for his current present or relive a painful past ?

“Maybe for a second. But when I step onto this pitch, I want to win by any means,” Thompson said. “I don’t care how ugly or pretty it is. Let’s just win and protect our home court. I’m not going to sing ‘Kumbaya’ or anything. I just want to win.”

Warriors forward Draymond Green hardly seemed interested in thinking. The injury dashed Golden State’s hopes in those Finals, robbing Thompson’s team of two top-flight seasons and setting them on course for two tumultuous seasons that ended with trips to the 2020 NBA draft lottery and 2021 Play-In tournament . Thompson missed this 2020-21 season after tearing his right Achilles tendon just before training camp and still recovering from the initial cruciate ligament tear.

“There’s no reason to talk about something unfortunate that happened three years ago,” Green said. “We will remain in this moment. We will have positive thoughts and move forward.”

Before the Warriors move forward, some will look back.

“We’re probably going to be talking about that for a long time,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Hopefully we can get this job done and pay tribute to this three year journey that actually resulted in something really special.”

At the time, Thompson was spending 941 straight days battling the frustration of monotonous rehab and a spot on the sidelines. Through both shootings and burglaries since his return, Thompson has often expressed appreciation for simply playing again.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Thompson said. “I’m very grateful for everything I’ve done up to this point that has led to this.”


Will Green have a bounce back game?

Draymond Green and Warriors coach Steve Kerr are open about their screaming matches over occasional philosophical differences. After Kerr Green bet for key stretches in the fourth quarter of Game 4 that the pair claimed there was little to fix, it perhaps ringed truer than most such claims.

“Draymond is Draymond. He’ll bring it every night,” Kerr said. “I think what might have been lost the other night is how good he was on the track.”

Although Green only had two points on 1-on-7 shooting in Game 4, Kerr praised Green for recording nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals. Kerr left Green 7-32 in the fourth quarter and trailed the Warriors 90-86. After the Warriors built a 97-94 lead by 3-02, Kerr inserted Green for a defensive play before switching him back out on the next two offensive possessions. Green finished the game with two assists and an offensive rebound.

“I affect the win,” Green said. “I did that on the track and I need to carry that over into Game 5.”


The smart approach

What started out as a major problem has grown into a significant luxury.

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart described himself as an “energizer bunny” growing up, giving his mother a headache as he struggled to sit still. That prompted Smart’s mother to sign him up for numerous youth sports programs, including basketball, soccer, football, and baseball.

This early experience honed Smart’s love of baskets as well as his stamina, a key ingredient that earned him recognition as the 2021-22 Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

“You have to keep going and never give up. You can’t take breaks. You have to push your limits,” Smart said. “You play against some of the biggest players and you have to have a strong engine. I keep telling myself no matter how hurt you are, no matter how tired you are, you have to keep going. That’s the mentality you have to have to be a really good defender.”


Injury Update, Warriors Edition

Shortly after walking down the arena hallway without a visible limp, Curry assured how his left foot feels:

“Big.”

Curry was in pain after Celtics forward Al Horford fell on him both during a closeout and as the two were chasing a loose ball in Game 3.


Injury update, Celtics edition

Despite optimizing his surgically repaired left knee in Game 4, Celtics center Robert Williams III is expected to continue playing in Game 5.

“He will be able to walk optimistically,” said Udoka. “But we will test it as usual before the game.”

Despite describing his left knee as “a little sore,” Williams said he still feels “fine.” Williams has been struggling with ongoing pain during the Celtics’ playoff run after undergoing surgery on March 30.

“I don’t even think about it anymore when I’m on the pitch,” Williams said. “Obviously it’s difficult to deal with, but I don’t really think about it on the pitch. I guess you could say my adrenaline is carrying me.”


rotational displacement

The Warriors started Otto Porter Jr. as a power forward in Game 4 in place of Kevon Looney, but it remains to be seen if Kerr will phase that lineup again to tip Game 5.

“It feels like almost every series, we had to do a bit of searching for combinations and backup patterns,” Kerr said. “I’ll leave it at that.”


It must be the shoes

It turns out that Curry’s success doesn’t just depend on his marksmanship. Or if the Celtics can somehow force a few misses. It also depends on Curry’s shoes.

A reporter drew his attention to the fact that Warriors have gone 3-0 in playoff games where Curry wore the purple “Curry 4 Flowtro.”

“I don’t know if that bothers the ju-ju knowing the record now,” Curry joked. “I have many different colors, so we’ll see. Lets see what happens. You’ve got me thinking now too.”

Mark Medina is a Senior Writer/Analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here, and follow him on twitter.

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