CLEVELAND — After the Celtics opened the season with a double-overtime loss to the Knicks last month, Jayson Tatum walked into the media room in the bowels of Madison Square Garden and glanced at a stat sheet.
The All-Star forward had made just 7 of 30 shots and 2 of 15 3-pointers, and it was a bit of a buzz-kill for a player who recently helped USA Basketball to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. But it was also just one game, and Tatum knew that.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to laugh at yourself,” he said. “I guess I’m good for one of those a season. Hopefully, that’s the last one. Get it out the way. We’ve got 81 more.”
While Tatum hasn’t quite repeated that grisly shooting effort, the results have not improved much, either. He followed up the Knicks game with three solid performances before regressing into one of the worst slumps of his five-year career.
This season he is shooting 38.8 percent from the field, 32.1 percent from the 3-point line and 74.2 percent from the foul line, all of which are career lows by at least five percentage points.
There are some indications that Tatum’s struggles are the result of too much isolation play. Last season 61.7 percent of his two-point field goals were unassisted, but that figure has jumped to 68.4 this year. Also, he is just 15 for 62 (24.2 percent) from the field when shooting with less than seven seconds on the shot-clock, when players are often forced to create on their own.
When Tatum is at his best, he plays with an obvious and uncommon swagger. But for much of this season, whether complaining to officials or displaying frustrations with his own play, his body language has been off. Head coach Ime Udoka said he noticed it Saturday night, when Tatum made just 1 of 8 3-pointers and committed six turnovers in the 91-89 loss to the Cavaliers.
“A little frustration on missed shots, letting it affect him on the other end,” Udoka said. “Just got to play through that. Having some tough shooting nights, and we talked about him impacting the game in other ways. But he got frustrated, played to the crowd a little bit, had some turnovers there late, some sloppy ones.”
It is, perhaps, most concerning that the Celtics have been unable to rely on Tatum when they need him most. In games that are within five points in the final minute, Tatum is just 1 for 8 from the field, including three important misses.
He had a chance to beat the Knicks at the end of the first overtime on opening night, but his mid-range jumper from the right baseline was off. Then he had an opportunity to take down the Wizards at the end of the first overtime on Oct. 30, but he was double-teamed and forced into a tough jumper from the right wing that missed.
He could have finished off the Bucks at the end of regulation Friday, but he drove on Bobby Portis and could not convert an off-balance 12-footer. That was the only one of the three that the Celtics went on to win.
Tatum’s first made shot in a last-minute clutch situation actually came Saturday night, when he hit an open 18-footer to tie the score at 89 with 29.4 seconds left. But the most notable moment came afterward, when Udoka turned to red-hot guard Dennis Schröder to take the final shot against Cleveland. It was partly to hunt a mismatch against Cedi Osman, but it was still unusual for Tatum not to have the ball in his hands in that situation.
Schröder was unable to convert, however, and the Celtics lost anyway.
“He’s one of the best players in this league,” Schröder said of Tatum. “I mean, he’s five years in, he’s got this figured out. At the end of the day, he’s doing everything right. He’s working. He’s doing everything, every day — going into the gym, being the first guy in, last guy out. At the end of the day, you’re taking him all day. I’m taking him all day. I’d go to war with him. He’s going to figure it out, whatever it is.”
Schröder said he’ll encourage Tatum to start attacking the basket more to put pressure on officials to reward him with free throws. Mid-range opportunities have been a chore, with Tatum connecting on just 15 of 52 shots from 8-16 feet. But attacking has not always worked out well, either. Tatum has made just 14 of 37 driving layups.
“I think it’s just as simple as, I just need to make more shots,” Tatum said. “I’m getting to the rim, just got to make them.”