Tatum Starts Strong in Team USA’s Exhibition Opener

Jayson Tatum got his first taste of action with the United States Men’s Basketball Olympic team Saturday night and turned out to be one of its few bright spots during an exhibition upset defeat to Nigeria.

The Celtics wing served as Team USA’s primary source of offense throughout the majority of the contest, as he tallied 15 points and a game-high-tying seven rebounds, while shooting 4-of-7 from the field, 2-of-3 from 3-point range, and a perfect 5-of-5 from the free-throw line. But despite the efforts of its youngest member, Team USA came up short, 90-87, in its first of five exhibition matchups ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Tatum earned a spot in the starting lineup alongside Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, and Bam Adebayo. He proved right away that he belonged among such a star-studded group, as he knocked down a pair of 3-pointers during the opening frame, including a transition trey at the end of the frame which gave USA a 23-22 lead.

Tatum added to his scoring in the second quarter with an and-one lay-up and three free-throw makes, giving him a team-high 11 points at the break. However, USA could not sustain its 43-41 halftime lead, largely due to Nigeria’s 20-of-42 shooting effort from 3-point range, which included a 6-of-8 effort from the game’s leading scorer, Gabe Vincent (21 points).

Nigeria saw its lead expand to as many as eight points during the closing minutes, though Durant was able to keep USA in the game by scoring eight of his team-high 17 points during the final minute-plus of regulation.

It was a stunning defeat for Team USA, which was favored by 30 points, but as Tatum noted, it was the first time that many of these guys have played in a game together, and following just four days of preparation.

“We’re just trying to get a feel for the game, for each other,” he said during a halftime interview with NBC Sports. “We’re trying to get in a flow, get in shape, and so we’re trying to figure a lot of things out.”

Tatum also believes that a loss like this can help in the long run, as he said after the game, “We’re going to learn a lot from film, and just regroup, stay positive.”

One piece of intel that he and his teammates will take away from the film is that they will need to move the ball better and not settle for so many isolation plays moving forward.

“We’ve got a lot of great isolation players, and in this deal, we’re going to have to play together and figure out what works best with certain guys out there and getting other guys easy shots instead of for ourselves,” Tatum said.

Obviously, it wasn’t an ideal start for the gold-medal favorites, but getting a wake-up call out of the way early could be a blessing in disguise.

In fact, while sitting next to Tatum at a podium post-game, head coach Gregg Popovich went so far as to say, “In a way, I’m kind of glad it happened. That loss means nothing if we don’t learn from it, but it could be the most important thing in this tournament for us, to learn lessons from this and see what we did to move on. Because it’s a great group of guys, high-character, and we’ll figure it out.”

Tatum and the rest of the group will have four more exhibition games to figure it out before heading to Tokyo, with their next game falling Monday night against Australia.

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