As Stephen Curry stood on a stage constructed on Jayson Tatum’s home court to officially crown the Golden State Warriors NBA champions, he said that this championship hit different. The same sentiment applies to the inverse, stark failure in the NBA Finals. It hits different. It wounded Tatum.
The Celtics’ young superstar flopped on the NBA’s biggest stage, and not in the Marcus Smart manner of tricking officials. His failure to launch and to deliver when it mattered most was a cruel ending to a breakthrough season for the forward, who earned All-NBA first-team honors, and for the Celtics, who broke through to the Finals only to break down after taking a 2-1 series lead.
The denouement of disappointment was a 103-90 defeat in Game 6 Thursday night at TD Garden that ended any shot Tatum had at salvaging this nightmare series. Unlike parquet partner Jaylen Brown, who went down shooting with a 34-point night, Tatum signed off with a whimper. He scored just 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting — a bookend to a series he started with a 3-for-17, 12-point clunker in Game 1. The Celtics kept waiting for the real Tatum. He never showed.
Losses are lessons. This is a tough one for Tatum. It dented his spirit and his reputation.
“It hurts,” said Tatum, who faded following a 3-of-6 first quarter, going 1 for 8 for 2 points in the second half.
“We all could have done things better. I feel like I could have done a lot of things better. But we competed, we tried all season, all playoffs.”
They don’t hand out playoff participation trophies, though, just the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Rings render reputations, résumés, and legacies. Tatum will have to wait to paint a different picture.
Turnovers stunted Tatum and the Celtics. He committed a team-high 23 in the Finals, including five in Game 6.
His travel with 3:32 left in a 93-81 game was the Boston death knell. Tatum spiked the ball in frustration. Then Curry drilled a corner three, pantomimed someone resting on a pillow, and it was goodnight sweet Celtics.
By that time, Tatum’s hot start and that of the Celtics — who seized an early 14-2 lead and led, 22-16, before the Warriors unspooled a 21-0 run — felt like a fuzzy fever dream.
JT earned an ignominious milestone: the first player to turn the ball over 100 times in a postseason. He let the Warriors maneuver him to their spots all series, looking tentative and indecisive.
“I don’t want to get caught up in necessarily some of the bad stuff that happened tonight,” said Celtics conscience Al Horford. “I want us to keep perspective on how much growth Jayson and Jaylen had this year. There’s a lot on their hands, a lot of responsibility. They took it in stride. They made adjustments. They improved. They grew as players.”
All true, Al.
Without Banner No. 18, the most important takeaway for the Celtics will go down as Brown and Tatum reaffirming their commitment to each other and rewriting the narrative that they can’t flourish together.
Brown consoled Tatum after the loss. He wore it with him, saying the Celtics had “shown our immaturity at times.”
“Just gave him a hug, man,” said Brown. “I know it was a tough last game. … It stings that we kind of didn’t play to our potential. … But it is what it is. You got to learn from it and move on.
“As tough as it is, it has been a great year, been a great journey.”
The great what-if for Tatum and the Celtics is what if he had played to his normal standard? Golden State coach Steve Kerr acknowledged the Celtics had his team “on the ropes.”
Tatum missed some good looks, but sharing a postgame presser with Marcus Smart wasn’t a great look. It does little to quiet those who question the measure of his mental fortitude.
However, it appeared emotionally he needed to play a two-man game instead of being put in an iso position.
The forlorn forward was at a loss for words and at a loss to explain a series in which he shot 36.7 percent, including 31.6 percent on 2-point attempts, percentages that made his NBA Finals averages — 21.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 7 assists — feel like empty calories.
Also, Tatum provided just 18 fourth-quarter points while shooting 24 percent.
He’s not the first NBA superstar to stumble on the game’s biggest stage. He won’t be the last. Magic Johnson was mocked as “Tragic Johnson” in the 1984 NBA Finals.
He’s also not the first Boston star to come up short. Ted Williams flamed out in the 1946 World Series. Few remember because the Red Sox won, but Mookie Betts was a bust in the 2018 World Series (.217 with one homer and one RBI).
But that’s of little consolation to the soft-spoken 24-year-old face of the franchise — one that resembled that of a teenager who had just been dumped by his first love more than a franchise front man denied a ring.
It’s a reminder that Tatum is still a work in progress, no matter how preternaturally gifted he is with a basketball.
“Learn and understand who he is in this league — you’re an All-Star, All-NBA first-team guy for a reason,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “This is only the start of how you’re going to be guarded and the attention you’re going to draw.
“One thing that he’s always done throughout the season was seeing multiple different coverages and figured it out. He did that throughout the first few series. This one was a rough one, very consistent team that did some things to limit him.
“For him, it’s just continuing to grow and understand you’re going to see this the rest of your career. This is just a start.”
That’s what the Celtics hope. That this brutal ending represents the beginning of something bigger. That they’ll take this loss, internalize it, and use it to fuel their internal combustion engines.
No one will have more fuel than Tatum — the bitter taste of a Finals flub and the narrative that he’s lacking the necessary brio to win a title.
“It’s tough,” said Tatum. “You don’t want to feel like this again, but you want to get back here. It’s going to fuel us.”