September 30, 2022

The 24-year-old budding superstar was gassed in his first NBA Finals, possibly because the series of bruises that got him there ended in Game 7’s final possession.

His shooting had largely let him down, with back-to-back 3-for-11 efforts in Games 3 and 4, so he found other ways to contribute, with 13 rebounds and 10 assists one night, then 12 and 7 the next. .

You might think we’re talking about Jayson Tatum, but guess again – those numbers belonged to Larry Bird.

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His 1981 Celtics won a title against the Rockets in six games, and Bird finally came to life in the clincher with 27 points and 13 rebounds. But for most of this series he struggled to score, scoring eight, eight and 12 points, respectively, in games 3-5. Celtics fans might be surprised to learn that Bird had as many rebounds against the Rockets as points (92).

That didn’t stop him from delivering in the clutch, even though teammate Cedric Maxwell won the series MVP award. Bird hardly cared; from then on, he could still call himself a champion.

We raise this for obvious reasons. As the 2022 NBA Finals become best-of-three against the battle-tested Warriors, we shouldn’t be so quick to write off Tatum, despite another headache in a demoralizing Game 4 loss.

The young star is under the considerable weight the Celtics are asking him to carry. Not only does he lead the NBA in the playoffs (898), but he handles the ball better than anyone. The Bucks created the plan by playing it aggressively at the point of attack, sometimes picking it up on the wrong side of the half court. Since that seven-game series, Tatum has faced constant trapping and ball pressure.

It didn’t always matter, like when he dropped 46 on Milwaukee in a must-win Game 6, or when he went 26 and 10 against the Heat in Game 7 of the conference finals in road to an MVP award and the first Larry Bird trophy. He also excelled in new ways to find teammates, like when he went 3-for-17 in Game 1 against the Warriors to post a career-high 13 assists.

But overall, the extra attention is clearly taking its toll. As fellow superstar Steph Curry exploded for 43 points and 10 rebounds in Game 4 on Friday, Tatum missed four of his five shots in the fourth quarter, including an airball and a driving layup that barely caught the iron .

Coach Ime Udoka suggested he should start playing for baskets instead of fouls, but the problem seems to be the legs. Of Tatum’s 15 misses on Friday, seven failed and another was never even released because Klay Thompson undressed him on the way up.

Tatum looks like a guy who needs a day off and can’t get it. His last dunk came against the Heat in the Conference Finals, and finding space to operate was a struggle throughout the Finals, even against defenders he should dominate, like the smaller Curry or the hard-working Nemanja Bjelica, who thwarted him twice in the closing minutes of Game 4.

Tatum found other ways to contribute, with the aforementioned 13 assists in Game 1 and 11 rebounds in Game 4, but the Celtics need him to shoot better than 34% if they want to lift the 18 banner.

As Bird proved over 40 years ago, it’s never too late to make a difference. He found his place in his first final and there is still time for Tatum to join him in making his own Celtics history.

The beauty of Tatum and those Celtics is that they bounced back. They followed up an epic slump in Game 5 against the Bucks with two straight wins. They missed a chance to close out the Heat at home in Game 6, then led Game 7 in Miami from one end to the other.

Tatum must dig deep and find the equipment that has eluded him throughout the finale. Curry, 34, is a magician who conjured up every illusion in his spell book. But there’s no reason he should have more in the tank than Tatum, who has a better supporting cast and certainly a stronger sidekick in Jaylen Brown.

As Bird proved over 40 years ago, it’s never too late to make a difference. He found his footing in his first final and there’s still time for Tatum to join him in making his own Celtics history.