SAN FRANCISCO — As he strives to become one of the NBA’s best players, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum faces both an opportunity and a challenge that could determine whether he reaches that goal.
Can Tatum help deliver the Boston Celtics their 18th NBA championship, retaking the league lead from the Lakers with a first title in 12 years? With the Celtics and Golden State Warriors facing a 2-2 tie in the NBA Finals, will Tatum provide a signature performance on Monday in Game 5 (9 ET, ABC)? Not to overstate the implications, but the Celtics’ upcoming games could significantly define Tatum’s legacy with one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.
“It’s the same amount of pressure I’ve always had,” Tatum said before Sunday’s practice at Chase Center. “It’s not something that I go to sleep thinking about, or when I wake up. Obviously, I want to win by any means necessary and I’ll do whatever it takes. That’s all I really care about right now, is winning.”
For the Celtics to win, Tatum will likely have to elevate his game. Through four NBA Finals games, he has averaged 22.3 points while shooting 33.4% overall (42.5% 3-pointers) with 7.8 assists and 7.0 rebounds. Those numbers largely trail Tatum’s regular-season averages in points (26.9), shooting percentage (45.3%) and rebounds (8.0) — even as they capture a playmaking jump in assists per game (up from 4.4).
“We want the total package from him,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “It’s something he’s capable of and has improved on this year. For him, it’s just picking and choosing his spots, when to be aggressive and when to get guys involved, and understanding what they are going to do.”
Udoka downplayed Tatum’s Game 1 performance, in which he totaled 12 points on 3-for-12 shooting. Udoka still liked how Tatum excelled as a facilitator en route to 13 assists. Udoka had a different assessment with Tatum’s previous performances in Game 2 (28 points, 8-for-19 FGs, three assists), Game 3 (26 points, 6-for-23 FGs, nine assists) and Game 4 (23 points, 8-for-23 FGs, six assists).
Udoka observed that Tatum is occasionally “over-penetrating” and worrying too much about drawing fouls instead of playing aggressively. Tatum agreed, vowing to make the necessary adjustments
“I’m not necessarily thinking about what it means for my career, but just what it means for our team and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Tatum said. “You guys will debate rankings and what does that matter for your legacy and things like that. That’s kind of not up to me. I feel like every day, I’m just trying to do what I can to impact winning at all costs.”
Thompson nearing 3-year anniversary of first season-ending injury
Game 5 will mark the third-year anniversary of Thompson injuring his left ACL in the Warriors’ decisive Game 6 loss to Toronto in the 2019 NBA Finals. Will the moment prompt Thompson either to express gratitude of his current present or relive a painful past?
“Maybe for a second. But when I step on that court, I want to win by any means necessary,” Thompson said. “I don’t care how ugly or pretty it is. Let’s just win and protect our home court. I’m not going to sing ‘Kumbaya’ or anything. I just want to frigging win.”
Warriors forward Draymond Green hardly seemed interested in reflecting. The injury sank Golden State’s hopes in those Finals, robbed the team of two prime seasons from Thompson and set them on course for two tumultuous seasons that ended with trips to the 2020 NBA draft lottery and the 2021 Play-In Tournament. Thompson missed that 2020-21 campaign after rupturing his right Achilles tendon just before training camp, still recovering from the initial ACL tear.
“There’s no need to talk about something that’s unfortunate that happened three years ago,” Green said. “We’re going to stay in this moment. We’re going to think positive thoughts and we’re going to move forward.”
Before the Warriors move forward, some will still look back.
“That’s something we’ll probably talk about for a very long time,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Hopefully we can get this job done and pay homage to that three-year journey actually leading to something truly special.”
At the time, Thompson spent 941 consecutive days fighting frustration through monotonous rehab and a seat on the sidelines. Through both shooting outbursts and slumps since his return, Thompson has often expressed appreciation simply for playing again.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Thompson said. “I’m very grateful and everything I did to that point that led to this.”
Will Green have a bounce-back game?
Green and Warriors coach Steve Kerr are forthright about their shouting matches over occasional philosophical differences. So after Kerr sat Green for key stretches in the fourth quarter of Game 4, that the pair maintained there was little to patch over, it rang perhaps truer than most such claims.
“Draymond is Draymond. He’s going to bring it every night,” Kerr said. “I think the thing that maybe got lost the other night is how good he was down the stretch.”
Though Green only had two points on 1-for-7 shooting in Game 4, Kerr praised Green for recording nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals. Kerr sat Green with 7:32 left in the fourth quarter and the Warriors trailing, 90-86. Once the Warriors had amassed a 97-94 lead with 3:02 left, Kerr inserted Green for a defensive play before subbing him out again on the next two offensive possessions. Green closed the game out with two assists and an offensive rebound.
“I impact winning,” Green said. “I did that down the stretch, and I need to carry that over into Game 5.”
The Smart approach
What started as a big problem has turned into a significant luxury.
Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart described himself as “an Energizer Bunny” during his childhood, which gave his mother headaches as he struggled to sit still. That prompted Smart’s mother to enroll him in numerous youth sports programs, including basketball, football, soccer and baseball.
That early experience sharpened Smart’s love for hoops as well as his stamina, a key ingredient that ensured him recognition as the 2021-22 Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
“You’ve got to keep going and can’t ever give up. You can’t take breaks. You’ve got to push yourself to the limit,” Smart said. “You’re playing against some of the greatest players, and you have to have a high motor. I’m just telling myself constantly, no matter how hurt you are, no matter how tired you are, you’ve got to keep going. That’s the mentality you have to have to be a really good defender.”
Injury update, Warriors edition
Moments after walking down the arena hallway without a visible limp, Curry offered reassurances on how his left foot feels:
Curry dealt with pain after Celtics forward Al Horford fell on him during both a closeout and when the two pursued a looseball in Game 3.
Injury update, Celtics edition
Despite tweaking his surgically repaired left knee in Game 4, Celtics center Robert Williams III is still expected to play in Game 5.
“Optimistic he’ll be good to go,” Udoka said. “But we’ll test it before the game as usual.”
Although he described his left knee as “a little sore,” Williams said he still is “feeling good.” Williams has dealt with ongoing pain during the Celtics’ playoff run after having surgery on March 30.
“I don’t even think about it anymore when I’m on the court,” Williams said. “Obviously, it’s tough to deal with, but I don’t really think about it on the court. I guess you could say my adrenaline is carrying me.”
The Warriors started Otto Porter Jr. in place of Kevon Looney at power forward in Game 4, but it remains to be seen if Kerr will run out that lineup again to tip Game 5.
“It feels like almost every series, we have had to search a little bit for combinations and for substitution patterns,” Kerr said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Must be the shoes
It turns out that Curry’s success won’t just hinge on his marksmanship. Or if the Celtics can somehow force a few misses. It also depends on Curry’s footwear.
A reporter alerted him that Warriors have gone 3-0 in playoff games that Curry wore the purple “Curry 4 Flowtro.”
“I don’t know if that messes with the ju-ju if I’m aware of the record now,” Curry joked. “I’ve got a lot of different colors, so we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. You got me thinking now, too.”
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