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The New Jayson Tatum Won’t Be Denied

The Celtics star didn’t destroy the Warriors in their second Finals rematch, but he did enough to defeat them, proving the MVP candidate has leveled up this season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Game 46 of the regular season usually isn’t significant for a team that’s 33-12. There are 82 of these things. Each is its own learning experience and opportunity to develop good habits, and regardless of how discouraging a loss or elating a win can be, players typically don’t lose sleep over any one contest, particularly if they are dominant MVP candidates averaging 30-plus per game.

But for Jayson Tatum, Thursday night’s win over the Warriors was a bit different.

Having infamously struggled during the 2022 NBA Finals, dithering his way to a 39.3 field goal percentage and 15 turnovers in their final three games—Tatum then laid an egg in his first rematch against the champs, last month. According to Basketball Reference’s GameScore metric, it was Tatum’s second-worst performance of the season. He scored 18 points and took 21 shots in a 16-point loss. “Everybody wanted to win so bad,” Tatum said. “That was the first time all season that we played out of character. That we played tense.”

This season’s second Celtics-Warriors clash wasn’t exactly an aesthetic pleasure, either. Tatum turned it over seven times (nearly costing Boston the game with a couple of late head-scratchers) and finished 9-for-27 from the field. But despite the blemishes, the Celtics’ 24-year-old franchise cornerstone delivered the type of performance they needed against a Warriors team that had, up until then, been his kryptonite. Instead of sticking with the same approach that led to a rough first half, or repeatedly turning to late-clock, one-on-one possessions that tilt the game in Golden State’s favor, Tatum showcased everything that makes him special, quickly attacking in myriad ways on and off the ball and, eventually, outthinking his opponent instead of overthinking what he wanted to do.

Golden State’s defense has been about average this season. But the starting five the Warriors trotted out Thursday, with Jordan Poole (who was a train wreck) replacing Kevon Looney, seemingly didn’t help them on that end. “I just wanted to open up the floor, give us a little different look,” coach Steve Kerr said about the decision to go small and break up what might be the best five-man unit in the league. “Maybe get a spark. We’re past the halfway point. We’re .500. You know, let’s try something different. … Against Boston in particular you gotta open up the floor. They’ve got [a] big front line. Big wings.”

But that tiny Warriors group, led by Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green, held up fine; when they lock in to take something away, they’re as tough as any group in the league. “They test you to make the right play. They test you to be spaced. And they test you to be disciplined,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said afterward.

Against Tatum, that translates to a hyper-aggressive look that takes away his driving lanes, clogs the paint, and makes him think twice whenever he attacks an ostensibly favorable matchup. When Tatum was the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, Golden State on Thursday either squeezed the ball out of his hands with a blitz or bled the shot clock by keeping the screener’s man level with the pick until Tatum’s initial defender could recover:

Everything was uphill, and Tatum kept coming anyway. He got off the ball when the defense told him to, read the floor, and trusted his teammates. Not everything was smooth and some decisions were forced (this was Boston’s first game of the season with last year’s starting five), but his general resolve was sound and critical:

As the game went on, Mazzulla used Tatum in different ways. Instead of initiating pick-and-rolls and allowing Golden State (a.k.a. Draymond Green) to load up in the paint (Tatum ran only two of them in the fourth quarter, according to Second Spectrum), he got a couple of open looks off of Boston’s patented flares and then turned himself into the screener on small-small actions with Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, forcing switches, getting the matchup he wants, and then attacking:

At once, he became more patient and assertive. On what was probably his most important and impressive play, down four with 90 seconds to go in regulation, Tatum rejected Brogdon’s screen (that would’ve probably yielded a switch onto Poole), drove left, and pressured Green to slide all the way off Al Horford to allow an open 3:

This was someone refusing to settle, who didn’t want a tricky driving floater over two defenders or a stepback isolation 3 that likely wouldn’t drop. “You can’t just run the same thing over and over against this team and expect it to work,” Tatum said. He adapted throughout the night, forcing Golden State back on its heels in the game’s biggest moments. And, ultimately, it paid off, with a 121-118 victory in overtime.

As with every NBA game, there are dozens of reasons one team won and the other lost. Horford looked like he was 27 years old, Poole evaporated in the fourth quarter, Rob Williams put back approximately 73 of Tatum’s missed shots, etc. Meaningful takeaways are something of an oxymoron in January.

But what Tatum did against the Warriors matters. He’s already established himself as the NBA’s most complete superstar, someone who can score at all three levels, draw fouls, rebound in traffic, make plays from any spot on the floor, defend five positions at a high level, and pretty much anything else the Celtics need. This exact type of performance—gutsy, inefficient, overcoming a sluggish start against a boogeyman Final Boss opponent that he may still see again in this year’s Finals—felt essential, though. “Can you operate in the chaos?” Mazzulla asked. “Can you make a mistake and then bounce back forward?”

Tatum could have thrown the keys to Jaylen Brown, Brogdon, or Smart and started to think about Saturday’s game in Toronto. Instead he finished with a game-high 34 points, a career-high 19 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and a 12-for-12 performance from the line when every other Celtics finished 10-for-18.

After the win, Tatum admitted Golden State had been in Boston’s head. “The fact of the matter is they beat us in the championship,” he told TNT’s Chris Haynes. “There’s nothing we can do about that. And I think we might’ve been too tight in the first game trying to avenge the championship. It’s over with. We lost.”

Even though there’s still five months of basketball to be played, this one felt like we were witnessing a maturation in real time. Tatum made first team All-NBA last season. He’s extremely accomplished. But he’s also just 24 years old, with room to grow and much to learn about himself. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, and so many other all-time greats struggled to win at the highest level until they reached their late 20s. Tatum is ahead of schedule, with time for self-discovery.

He made mistakes and missed shots on Thursday. But he also acknowledged how Boston’s collective mindset has changed since their last bout against the Warriors. “Not make it bigger than it really is. It’s one game,” he said. “They all count as one. … Whether we won or lost tonight, we didn’t celebrate or hang a banner or anything. We still got a game on Saturday.”

At the same time, though, this meeting presented him with a test no other opponent can. This time, Tatum passed it. The Warriors are no longer his waking nightmare. And considering how open the Western Conference is and how impressive Boston has been all season, that statement may be relevant a few months from now in a way the Celtics should feel good about.