Jayson Tatum can look to this Celtics legend for proof there’s still time to dominate NBA Finals

The 24-year-old budding superstar was gassed in his first NBA Finals, perhaps because the bruising streak that got him there was due to last Game 7 possession.

His shot had largely let him down, with back-to-back 3-for-11s in Games 3 and 4, so he found other ways to contribute, with 13 rebounds and 10 assists in one night and then 12 and 7 the next.

You might think we’re talking about Jayson Tatum, but guess what – those numbers belonged to Larry Bird.

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His 1981 Celtics clinched a title over the Rockets in six games, and Bird eventually came alive with 27 points and 13 rebounds in the clincher. But for most of that series, he struggled to score in Games 3-5 with eight, eight and 12 points, respectively. Celtics fans would probably be surprised to learn that Bird recorded as many rebounds as points (92) against the Rockets.

It didn’t stop him from delivering in the clutch, however, even as teammate Cedric Maxwell took home the series MVP award. Bird hardly cared; From that point on, he could forever call himself a champion.

We bring this up for obvious reasons. With the 2022 NBA Finals set to be a best-of-three against the battle-hardened Warriors, we shouldn’t be quick to write Tatum off, despite another clunker in a demoralizing Game 4 loss.

The young star suffers from the considerable weight the Celtics are asking of him. Not only does he lead the NBA in postseason minutes (898), but he handles the ball more than anyone. The Bucks created the blueprint by playing him aggressively at attack and sometimes picking him up on the wrong side of the halfcourt. Since that seven-game streak, Tatum has faced constant trapping and ball pressure.

It didn’t always matter, like when he lost 6-46 in Milwaukee in a must-win game, or when he scored 26-10 in Game 7 of the Conference Finals en route to an MVP award against the Heat’s first Larry Bird Trophy. He’s also excelled in new ways when looking for teammates, like shaking off a 3-for-17 in Game 1 against the Warriors and a career-high 13 assists.

But overall, the extra attention is clearly taking its toll. While superstar counterpart Steph Curry exploded 43 points and 10 rebounds in Friday’s Game 4, Tatum missed four of his five shots in the fourth quarter, including an airball and a driving layup that narrowly hit irons.

Coach Ime Udoka suggested he play for baskets instead of fouls, but the problem seems to be the legs. Of Tatum’s 15 misses on Friday, seven came up short and another wasn’t even released because Klay Thompson stripped it on the way up.

Tatum looks like a guy who needs a day off and can’t have it. His last dunk came in the conference finals against the Heat, and it was a struggle throughout the finals to find room to act, even when facing defenders he was meant to dominate, like the smaller Curry or the plodding Nemanja Bjelica, who hampered him twice The final minutes of Game 4.

Tatum has found other ways to contribute with the aforementioned 13 assists in Game 1 and 11 rebounds in Game 4, but the Celtics need him to shoot more than 34 percent if they want to hoist Banner 18s.

As Bird proved more than 40 years ago, it’s never too late to make a difference. He found footing in his first Finals and there is still time for Tatum to join him and make his own Celtics history.

John Tomase

The beauty of Tatum and these Celtics is that they’ve recovered before. They followed an epic collapse in Game 5 against the Bucks with back-to-back wins. They missed a chance to end the heat at home in Game 6 and then led Game 7 by wire to wire in Miami.

Tatum must dig deep and find the gear that eluded him during the finale. 34-year-old Curry is a magician who has cast every illusion in his magic book. But there’s no reason he should have more in the tank than Tatum, who has a better supporting cast and certainly a stronger sidekick in Jaylen Brown.

As Bird proved more than 40 years ago, it’s never too late to make a difference. He found footing in his first Finals and there is still time for Tatum to join him and make his own Celtics history.

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