BOSTON — Just over a minute before the end of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Celtics coach Ime Udoka drew his starters. That meant Jayson Tatum had a minute to sit down and feel the weight of disappointment that came with losing.
“It hurts,” Tatum said. “Being with that group, the things that we’ve overcome throughout the season up to this point. Just knowing how badly we wanted it fell short. It’s a horrible feeling.”
As he spoke, he bowed his head and stared at the table he was sitting behind.
A few minutes earlier, Tatum had to endure the outrage of watching another team, Golden State, celebrate winning a championship on their home court. He politely congratulated his opponents and then walked away with a blank expression on his face. When a fan reached down from the stands and took the towel off his shoulders, Tatum didn’t even react.
He hadn’t been at his best during the final, which was often guarded by Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins. In the deciding game, Tatum had just 13 points with 7 assists and 3 rebounds while committing 5 turnovers. It capped a difficult series in which he struggled to find a rhythm offensively. At 24, he’s a fundamental part of Boston’s young core, and this could have been his moment.
On June 1, the day before the finals began, Tatum spoke to the media and said he wanted to be honest.
“There have been times when I’ve wondered if I’m the right person to lead a group like this,” he said. “You know I never doubted myself but just moments after some of those losses and the tougher parts of the season. It is human nature to question ourselves.”
He said it’s important to “always hold on to what you believe in and have faith in the work you’ve done.”
Then he went on.
“You know, it can’t rain forever.”
The Celtics had derailed the season, losing their first two games and 19 more by early January. They were 18-21 years old and appeared destined for an early off-season. But led by Tatum, they turned things around. They roared through the second half of the season and took second place in the East.
The postseason looked like a formidable challenge, but Tatum’s Celtics, the hottest team in the league, could have risen to the occasion. In the end they didn’t arrive.
“One thing he always did throughout the season was watch several different coverages and figure it out,” Udoka said. “He did that for the first couple of shows. This one was a rough one. Very consistent team who did some things to limit him and make others pay for it.
“For him, it’s just keep growing and understanding that you’re going to see that for the rest of your career. This is just a start.”
Tatum already has a remarkable resume. He has been named an NBA All-Star for the past three seasons. He was also named to the All-NBA first team that year. Tatum received the Eastern Conference Most Valuable Player Award for his performance against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
He averaged 26.9 points per game and just 2.9 turnovers per game during the regular season. His turnover numbers were lower than most players with better scoring averages than him.
When asked what the Celtics need to improve on, Tatum said, “I think sometimes just our confidence in this series and in previous series, myself included. Watch the ball, stuff like that.”
For the Celtics as a whole, losing possession was a problem during the finals. Losing the last three games of the series, Boston committed 15 turnovers in Game 4, another 18 in Game 5, and a painful 22 in Game 6. Golden State had its careless moments, too, but responded with enough composure to recover.
“It’s easy to look back and see all the things that could have been done better,” Tatum said. “We tried. I know that for sure.”
Highlighting Tatum’s offense would mean missing some context on a show that had a defensive bias towards it. Boston failed to score 100 points after Game 3. The Celtics held Golden State at 104.8 points per game below their regular-season average of 111 points per game.
Tatum was also able to influence the game without scoring early in the series. The Celtics scored 120 points in Game 1, their highest scoring game in the Finals. Tatum added just 12 points. Golden State defenders made Tatum uncomfortable whether he was trying to drive to the basket or shoot from the outside. He instead began looking for his teammates and had 13 assists.
But as the series progressed, Golden State began taking away its other options and making Boston pay for its mistakes.
From Games 2 through 5, Tatum averaged 26 points per game but struggled to make a significant impact, especially as the stakes rose.
It was a departure from earlier in the playoffs. When the Celtics were eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Tatum had 46 points with 9 rebounds and 4 assists. He shot 53.1 percent from the field in that game.
It was a feat he couldn’t come close to matching with Golden State. There were even times during the finals when Tatum seemed reluctant to take a shot when it was there for him, opting instead to scout for teammates. He also struggled to finish on the edge.
“We could all have done things better,” Tatum said. “I have the feeling that I could have done a lot better.”
Tatum injured his right shoulder during the Eastern Conference Finals, but would not attribute his struggles to that injury. He was asked if he needed surgery and said he didn’t think he would.
Rather, Tatum, dejected after coming so close to winning his first championship, only spoke generally about the need for improvement and how difficult the night was.
His teammates offered support.
“Just gave him a hug man,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “I know it was a tough last game. I know that obviously it was a game that we thought we could have won.”
His coach also had encouraging words.
“The growth he’s shown this year as a playmaker and in certain areas I think is the next step for him,” Udoka said. “Finding that, getting where some of the veterans are that saw it all and took their nuggets early in their careers.”
He added: “High IQ, intelligent guy who will learn from this and figure it out. I think it will push him to keep going, definitely motivate him.