I’m not sure how much Microsoft founder Bill Gates knows about basketball, but Jayson Tatum and the Celtics lived his words. “Success is a lousy teacher,” said Gates. “It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
If Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night was any indication, these Celtics still struggle to handle success with care. The Celtics and their budding superstar were seduced by the success they enjoyed in the first half against the Heat and treated it like a searing lump of charcoal that had been placed in their hands. They immediately dropped it — and Game 1 by a score of 118-107.
The Celtics have demonstrated this season that they’re capable of comebacks and responses when the chips are down, the most recent example coming in winning back-to-back elimination games against the defending NBA champion Bucks to reach the conference finals.
But the question dogging Tatum, who is climbing the mountain of NBA superstardom, and the Celtics is whether they can deal with the role of the hunted, whether they can display the same resolve, determination, and focus when playing from ahead. The answer in Game 1 was a resounding no.
Tatum is a totem, so you must be concerned about how the Celtics stack up with the Heat in terms of toughness, both physical and mental.
“We got out-toughed, out-physicaled,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka.
Marcus Smart (foot sprain) and Al Horford (COVID protocol), both of whom missed Game 1, could reinforce the Celtics in that regard if and when they become available.
But your best players ultimately have to be your comportment compass. That was the case for Miami with Jimmy Butler, who submitted 41 points to go along with 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks, and showed himself as one mean mother … of a competitor. This is a family publication, so we’ll leave the salute at that.
Meanwhile, Tatum turned Tony Eason under pressure, throwing intercepted passes.
Initially, Tatum looked ticketed for another memorable postseason evening, matching his Milwaukee magnum opus. His night ended up unforgettable for the wrong reasons.
The Green jumped out to a 13-point lead. They harbored a 62-54 advantage at halftime behind 21 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds from Tatum, who could hardly miss during a 9-of-14 half. He wasn’t alone as the Celtics shot 59.1 percent and scored a whopping 42 points in the paint.
But in the third-quarter 39-14 Heat avalanche that undid the Celtics, Tatum lost the ball and his composure, committing six of the Celtics’ eight turnovers.
He finished the period with one more turnover than points scored and his team down 17. That effort washed away his first-half brilliance like an ornate sand sculpture succumbing to high tide.
For the game, Miami scored 19 points off Tatum’s seven turnovers, which tied his postseason high. It was a reminder that for all of his jaw-dropping brilliance and remarkable shot-making ability, the 24-year-old Tatum still has his superstar learner’s permit.
“Obviously, I don’t want to turn the damn ball over and [crap] like that,” Tatum said. “Throughout the course of a game things happen, and they go on runs. That’s what they did. Throughout the course of the playoffs, we’ve done a great job of responding to runs, but for whatever reason, we didn’t today.
“I’ll be the first one to say that I’ll take the blame for that. I got to lead better. I got to play better, especially in those moments. I’m just looking forward to responding next game.”
Tatum should be commended for that honesty. He has grown immensely as a leader this year and was the voice of reason and calm confidence when the Celtics blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 5 against Milwaukee. He backed up those words with his play.
It’s his actions that need some work.
The turnovers were bad, but the body language was just as concerning. Tatum threw his arms up after not getting calls. He made sour faces. He was agitated and flirted with drawing a technical foul after taking a frustration swipe at the ball and nicking the face of Dewayne Dedmon with 43.9 seconds left in the Quarter From Hades.
The Heat got to him and got him off his game. You can’t let them see that level of frustration if you’re Tatum, who shot just 1 for 7 for 8 points in the second half. Psychological warfare was one of the ways Miami upended a more talented Celtics team in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals.
“We all got caught up in the officiating in that quarter when they got physical, and I think instead of trying to make the right play or drive and kick and get to the basket, we were looking for fouls,” said Udoka. “Those led to some of those turnovers.”
The hard-knock Heat and their culture represent a mental hurdle that Tatum and the Celtics have to clear. It’s reminiscent of when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had to vanquish the dirty-tricks Pistons.
“I like physicality. I want to run into people and see who falls down first,” said Butler, who took over the game in the second half, scoring 27 of his 41 points. “Who is going to quit first?”
Butler eclipsed Tatum with his drive and physicality. He delivered a game-defining block, swatting a Tatum corner 3-pointer back in his face as the Celtics, who trailed by as many as 20 in the fourth, were clawing back.
It felt like a big brother/little brother moment.
But Tatum is no longer anybody’s little brother. Udoka told him earlier this season to stop acting that way.
A night that started with so much promise, so much success for Tatum ended with a literal thud.
Tatum bricked a late three off the glass with the Celtics down 10 and 1:56 to go, a fitting and symbolic coda to success turned setback.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.