SAITAMA, Japan — Jayson Tatum’s blossoming as a Team USA leading scorer and star coincided with that ascension of his team. The Americans needed a night like Saturday at Saitama Super Arena and so did Tatum.
Tatum reverted back to his late-season Celtics self, splashing 3-pointers and pegging step-back jumpers as Team USA pulled away from a rugged Czech Republic team in the second half.
After losing its opener to France, USA needed to edge the Czechs to guarantee a spot in the knockout round and the result was one of those good ol’ fashioned USA whippings from the 1990s.
The 119-84 win was critical to the perception that Team USA is gelling quickly, and Tatum’s 27 points was one of the primary reasons USA turned a 4-point halftime lead into a 35-point win.
Tatum scored his 27 points in 24 minutes on 10-for-16 shooting, including five 3-pointers. Tatum had been timid in his Team USA Olympic experience before Saturday. He was forcing shots at times, passing up others. Against the Czechs, however, he looked completely in control, allowing his immense skill set to make his life easier.
Team USA played like it had planned a few weeks ago. But it’s been a difficult stretch with two exhibition losses and then the stunning opening tournament loss to France. Because of that, Team USA did not win its pool, but was able to advance to the win-or-go-home quarterfinals beginning Tuesday are is expected to play either Italy or the loser of Spain-Slovenia in its first knockout game.
Tatum made more field goals and 3-point shots against the Czech Republic than the previous two games combined. He notched 17 points in the fourth quarter and 21 in the final 11:04 of the contest.
USA coach Gregg Popovich said he’s seen these types of performances from Tatum before. If you recall, Tatum dropped 60 on Popovich’s Spurs as the Celtics rallied from a 30-point deficit in a 143-140 win at the Garden in April.
“Tonight I just told him to act like you’re playing the Spurs,” Popovich said. “Every time we play him he scores like 90. It seemed to work.”
Popovich also coached Tatum during the 2019 World Cup and said he sees a distinctly different and improved player over that span. Tatum has ascended to an All-NBA caliber player and All-Star.
“Obviously he’s more confident but I think he makes better choices, decision-making wise,” Popovich said. “Whether he’s hit a couple [of threes] and the next catch he drives it and while he’s driving it, he can find a teammate. He attacks for himself and a teammate at the same time. He didn’t do that in the very beginning in the league. He was just a scorer but now he’s valuable because he does the other things. He’s starting to rebound better. We’re telling him it’s important. We’re not that big, so we do need him on the board.”
Tatum has never been around this much pure talent besides an All-Star Game and he’s trying to get accustomed to differing roles on different nights. On Saturday, he needed to score. During an exhibition game against Spain, he led the USA in assists. He and his teammates are all learning to defer when someone has a hot night. Team USA chairman Jerry Colangelo filled this team with pure scorers such as Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Zach LaVine.
“It’s a benefit to playing with other great players,” Tatum said. “It just makes the game easier. Everybody on the floor has a really high IQ. that can play the game at an extremely high level. It just makes the game easier for one another.”
Durant became the all-time Team USA leading scorer with his 23-point performance as the Americans produced their second consecutive blowout win. With Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton joining the team five days after the NBA Finals and now settling into roles, Team USA appears primed for another gold medal run.
Of course, the Americans will have to do it as essentially the fourth seed in an eight-seed tournament because of the loss to France. Australia won its four-team pool while the Spain-Slovenia winner will also be undefeated.
“Our confidence never wavered,” Tatum said. “We understood that it wasn’t going to be easy. We didn’t have our full team until five days ago. We knew we had a lot of challenges ahead of us. We also know we could get better every day. Hopefully we’re better next week.”
And Tatum is expected to be critical to that success. He has tried to fit in with his fellow All-Star, All-NBA teammates, but his talent is undeniable, so much so that when he walked past Durant during a postgame television interview, Durant motioned to Tatum to say he will be the next Team USA scoring king. Those are flattering words from an all-time great.
“Oh, I’ve got a long way to go,” Tatum said. “But it’s a respect thing between myself and him and obviously the win was extremely important but acknowledging the fact that it’s a big-time accomplishment for him to be the all-time leading scorer and records are made to be broken.”
Tatum made that last statement with a wry smile, perhaps hinting to future aspirations.