PHILADELPHIA — The struggle became psychological. Jayson Tatum feverishly tried to do what he has done thousands of times in his basketball career, from AAU to Chaminade Prep, to Duke to the Celtics, and he was failing miserably.
Tatum was named first-team All-NBA Wednesday for his uncanny ability to score, his impeccable offensive game that has catapulted him to superstardom and likely a $318 million contract next summer. But in the win-or-go-home Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, Tatum endured a nightmarish first three quarters that included an array of missed layups, clanged wide-open jumpers and costly turnovers.
A player that promised to atone for his miserable NBA Finals performance last June was blowing it again on the biggest stage with the Celtics’ season on the brink.
Knowing his superstar was suffering, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla offered encouragement after Tatum began the fourth quarter having missed 12 of 13 shots with just three measly points.
“I love you,” Mazzulla told Tatum.
Tatum was visibly frustrated and disappointed, slapping his hands after missed shots, complaining about missed calls and shaking his head as he ran back on defense. Yet, the Celtics needed Tatum to dismiss his doldrums and reinvent himself immediately. There was no tomorrow.
With Celtics faithful suggesting on social media the club trade Tatum for a 2042 second-round pick, he regained his prowess. With four minutes, 14 seconds left and Boston down 1 point, Tatum took a bounce pass from Malcolm Brogdon and reluctantly fired a 3-pointer in front of Joel Embiid. Swish.
Suddenly Tatum turned from a normal Joe into a superhero. He carried the Celtics down the stretch when they needed it the most. A loss could result in major roster changes and legitimate questions about Tatum’s ability to be the best player on a championship team.
But those concerns were replaced by satisfaction and relief. Tatum scored 14 of the Celtics final 16 points in their stirring 95-86 win. Tatum, who hit just seven 3-pointers in his previous 181-plus minutes of this series, hit four in a three-minute, 37-second stretch when the Celtics needed his brilliance.
“I mean being transparent, that (expletive) was frustrating,” Tatum said. “You want to win so bad. You want to play so well. Shots not falling, things not necessarily going your way and you want it so bad. Try and stay present, try and stay in the moment, try to do other things.”
The maturity and growth of Tatum has been noticeable on nights when he struggles offensively. Earlier in his career he put so much effort and focus on scoring. He watched countless video of Kobe Bryant. He dreamed of being a master scorer, an unstoppable shooter with an array of moves.
And while he has emerged as one of the league’s purest scorers, there are nights – many of those recently – when he loses that shooting stroke. Mazzulla and Ime Udoka before him, implored Tatum to find other ways to help his team.
There’s more to the game than scoring, he’s been told repeatedly. Great players impact both sides.
To his 19 points, Tatum added 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots. Mentally, he held it together despite being unable to drop a golf ball through a hula-hoop.
“His poise got him going,” Mazzulla said. “And so the standard that is set for him to where he’s not scoring, he’s not playing good basketball is wrong. He’s had multiple games this series when he’s at his best he doesn’t need to score. I thought his communication with his teammates. I thought his defensive intensity, even his force trying to drive the ball kept him in the game.”
His teammates knew he was pressing. Tatum is visibly hard on himself. After losses in Games 4 and 5 he sat stoically reflecting in the locker room, with his feet in the ice bucket lamenting his mistakes. Tatum realizes however he can’t play like one of the best players in the world every night, but he also realizes that stars have to make star plays when they missed 13 of their first 14 shots. The next one has to go on, right?
“Every timeout, every huddle my teammates telling me the next one is going in,” Tatum said. “Keep rebounding. Keep getting assists. Keep getting blocks. Keep impacting the game. It’s going to come. It’s going to come. That was helpful. All it took was one to kind of get that off my back.”
The fourth quarter wasn’t the first time Mazzulla has encouraged Tatum with positive affirmation such as “I love you.” Tatum and Mazzulla have grown closer as the season has progressed, with Tatum and his teammates recognizing their first year coach has faced heavy criticism in this series for his lack of adjustments and detached demeanor.
Mazzulla made the astute move of starting Robert Williams at center in Game 6 and it paid immediate dividends. And the Celtics looked like they were going to coast to victory with a stellar first half, but Tatum couldn’t hit a shot; the Celtics were without their leading scorer and the 76ers rallied and threatened to pull away – until Tatum finally regained his swagger.
“It’s tough to believe in somebody when they only make one shot,” Tatum said of his teammates. “But I know the guys believe in me until the clock hits zero.”
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