It’s been six weeks since the Celtics were disposed of by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, losing three consecutive games after being five minutes away from taking a three-games-to-one lead.
One of the primary reasons the Celtics did not win their first Finals appearance in 12 years was the underwhelming performance by superstar Jayson Tatum. He averaged 21.5 points and shot 36.7 percent from the field, succumbing to the defense of Andrew Wiggins and showing that, perhaps, he wasn’t ready for the moment.
There have been many examples of NBA players who tasted bitter defeat early in their careers before bouncing back to prosperity, and Tatum might be the latest.
In Boston he remains an icon and a role model. At his basketball camp in Foxborough last weekend, Tatum was playing one-on-one with his campers, walking around watching instruction and sharing high fives with those who were barely out of diapers when his career started in Boston five years ago.
The question is whether Tatum has the disposition to be the Celtics’ unquestioned leader. Was his pride bruised enough during the Finals to make a marked improvement on his game? To rise from above average to elite and become a top-five player for a championship-caliber team?
Those questions will be answered next season.
The campers didn’t care much about Tatum’s offseason workout regimen, they just wanted to score a bucket against their favorite Celtic. He went one-on-one with a couple of campers, and some of them even scored uncontested buckets.
One standout camper was a 9-year-old girl with major game. She showed the rest of the campers her dribbling skills before going one-on-one with Tatum. When she got her chance, she dribbled left, spun right, but was a little too far out of her range and missed the shot.
Time expired, and as the kids gathered for photos, she began crying while Tatum continued the next one-on-one game. A camp employee tried to console her, but she was disappointed that she missed her only shot in an exceedingly rare chance to face an NBA player.
Tatum walked over to take photos with all the kids, and out of the corner of his eye, as he was playing his final one-on-one game, he saw the girl crying. He put his arm around her and asked if she was OK. She said yes, then smiled brightly for the photo.
“I always like doing these camps,” Tatum said. “Just to see the excitement on their faces. It’s all about having fun, and I think that’s the best part. That’s part of the responsibility you have as an athlete, to give back and to be a mentor to the youth, because we were all there before.”
Tatum can tell reporters the Celtics are going to make another run at the title or that he’s been working feverishly to ensure that teams don’t guard him to drive left, as the Warriors did. But words won’t matter until the regular season, until the games begin.
Celtics fans have to have faith that behind the scenes, away from the public appearances, Tatum is putting in the work and will galvanize his teammates. The one thing Tatum has consistently shown over his career is that he desperately wants to be considered one of the game’s greats. He definitely was damaged from his lack of production in the Finals, but he’s savvy enough not to express that publicly.
Emotion has never been Tatum’s greatest attribute, and he’s definitely not going to display that during the summer.
“I was a little tired,” he said. “This is the longest season I have ever played. The shoulder feels good. I got enough rest, so I feel really good.”
That’s about as revealing as Tatum will get during the offseason. The good news is his right shoulder, which was dinged during the Miami series, required nothing but rest. And taking a month off has improved his overall health.
“It’s a little different,” he said of the offseason. “Just knowing we got to a certain point and we were so close. I’m excited to get back with the group, and we’ve got unfinished business.
“We have a great group of guys. We almost won a championship. We went to Game 6. When you go through battles with guys, you just become closer.”
There’s a sincerity with Tatum that has always been present. And he has become more vocal and expressive as he matures and becomes more of a leader. Leading for Tatum is being present in this community and facing the media even after the most demoralizing loss of his career.
While some athletes such as Kevin Durant demand a trade, shake up the NBA, and refuse to speak publicly, you have to applaud Tatum for his openness and fortitude to move forward.
Celtics faithful have to trust that he will be better, because he has rarely let them down before.