MILWAUKEE — When the Celtics needed Jayson Tatum the most Saturday at Fiserv Forum, they didn’t get much of anything and it’s the primary reason they lost Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Tatum, a likely All-NBA selection also expected to get top-five MVP votes, offered little as the Celtics made a furious rally and finished one play short in an infuriating 103-101 loss.
The Celtics’ leading scorer and improving playmaker appeared spooked by the Bucks defense and was merely a passer and decoy in the second.
He finished with 10 points on 4-for-19 shooting and 0 of 6 from the 3-point line. And even more disturbing about that performance is that those struggles appeared to affect him mentally. Tatum stopped being aggressive in the second half, looked to pass instead of shoot and was a non-factor down the stretch.
In 8 minutes and 27 seconds in the fourth quarter, Tatum attempted two shots. While Al Horford and Jaylen Brown were each punishing the Bucks with drives to the hoop and jumpers, Tatum was pestered by Milwaukee’s Wesley Matthews and appeared discouraged after a couple of missed open 3-point attempts.
Tatum had experienced porous offensive games before, but very rarely does he respond by being passive.
“He was passing up some open looks, overthinking it at times,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “If they’re going to sit back in the lane, you have your pull-ups. The first quarter there was one or two dribbles too many, kind of getting into the teeth of their defense. He over-penetrated, got into the crowd and started overthinking.”
Tatum entered Saturday averaging 28 points in his first six playoff games and he tallied 29 in Game 2. This performance was so unexpected because Tatum missed a slew of shots he usually makes. What’s more, he missed six midrange jumpers (the shots the Celtics want to take) and wasn’t close on his 3-point attempts.
With Tatum’s final bucket coming at the 7:58 mark of the fourth quarter, the Celtics were forced to rally without him and they nearly pulled off a comeback from a 14-point deficit.
“A couple of shots I could have taken,” he said. “I guess I was being a little hesitant, passing, just trying to make plays for the other guys. I have to be better in that aspect, and reading it better. I had been doing a great job of it, but today was just a one off.”
And even plays that Tatum tried to make turned sour. With the Celtics down 1 in the final 20 seconds, Jrue Holiday drove on Tatum, stepping on his right foot and causing him to fall. Tatum’s shoe kicked the ball out of Holiday’s hands, which allowed him free space to gather the ball and make a 12-footer with 11.2 left.
As much as Tatum tried shaking his Game 3 performance off as just a tough day, the pressure of being the Celtics’ most prolific offensive player and biggest defensive focus obviously wore on him Saturday. In one third-quarter sequence, he had Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton completely turned around on defense but yet didn’t penetrate and instead passed. In his final shot with 3:03 left and the Celtics down 1, Tatum backed in Matthews and forced a contested midrange jumper.
“I was probably thinking a little bit too much,” he said. “They were giving me a lot of attention and obviously I passed up some open looks that would have been best for the team. It all comes down to I’ve just got to make better reads. And a lot of times I was for myself today that I just passed up.”
Tatum doesn’t offer a lot of emotion in his personality or his responses to questions postgame. It’s difficult to determine whether he is truly disappointed in himself or just believes he had a bad shooting night that won’t happen again in Game 4.
He looked exhausted and disappointed, and he should be. The Celtics were a basket or two from winning this game. They desperately needed a better Tatum, that closer in the fourth quarter but he was psyched out by Milwaukee’s defense.
Since he attempted only three free throws, he was probably convinced he wasn’t going to get a call, so he relied too much on his jump shot, which was erratic. When that didn’t fall, and Giannis Antetokounmpo was lurking in the paint waiting for any dribble penetration, Tatum relented. He usually never relents. He usually goes out shooting.
The one thing Tatum hasn’t been accused of much during his Celtics tenure is not taking enough shots. But Saturday he was Timid Tatum.
“Obviously I know I didn’t play my best today and we still had a great chance to win,” Tatum said. “I expect to play better [in Game 4] and I’ll be ready to go Monday. I’m not going to make it about me. I’ve got to be better. I know that. My teammates know that and I’m sure I will be.
“We felt like we should have won. That’s the frustrating part, all things considered we still had opportunities. We came back and gave ourselves a chance to win the game, and we didn’t. That’s tough.”
The best response from Tatum in Game 4 is a better Tatum. The Celtics have proved in this series they are as good as the Bucks, but they’ll need their stars to play like stars to win this series.