I'll never forget Game 5 of the 2022 Eastern Conference
On a personal note, it was one of the best days of my
professional life. The arena itself was buzzing in anticipation of
a series-shifting game. For a fan base that's (mostly wrongfully)
berated for not being on time, the arena filled up pretty quickly
with Miami Heat fans.
Before the game, I got to meet the legendary duo of Doris Burke
and Mark Jones, Yahoo's Chris Haynes and other giants in the
industry. It was a surreal stretch of meet-ups considering my wild
journey to this point.
And then there was the game itself: a knock-out, drag-out fight
until the Boston Celtics turned up the sliders late in the third
quarter. A 59-58 Celtics lead with 2:44 left in the third turned
into a 77-60 lead with 9:35 left in the fourth. A work of mid-range
mastery from Jayson Tatum pushed the lead to 17, forcing Erik
Spoelstra to call timeout at the 9:35 mark. Poor Max Strus couldn't
do much about it.
I found myself marveling at Tatum's game that night. It wasn't
his most efficient scoring outing; he finished with 22 points on 20
shots (5-of-12 from two, 2-of-8 from three). He coughed up the rock
five times — two offensive fouls, two (tough) passes that went out
of bounds, and a live-ball turnover where he tried to thread a
needle into paint congestion.
But I quickly found the fun of a young superstar figuring things
out on the fly against an elite defense.
Here was Tatum, a natural bucket-getter, not just being forced
to make playmaking reads. No, no, no. He had to set up the
chessboard. Because of the Heat's personnel, and because of their
aggressive help principles and occasional pre-switches, Tatum was
often tasked with setting up a pick-and-roll before actually
running what he wanted.
Tatum starts the possession defended by Caleb Martin. A handoff
between Tatum and Jaylen Brown invites Jimmy Butler into the fray.
A ball screen, this time with Al Horford, calls up Bam Adebayo.
Tatum calls for another ball screen to target
Duncan Robinson, his ultimate goal from the beginning.
The Heat don't want to switch this one, so Robinson executes a
show-and-recover. Derrick White slips into open space with Robinson
and Adebayo focused on Tatum. But because Adebayo is involved above
the break, the Heat's backline help is pretty small.
Butler is an All-World defender, but he's stuck between two
players in the paint. Robinson hasn't gotten back to White, so
Butler has to hold. The issue becomes Horford. Martin can't drop
down to pick up Horford like he normally would because Brown is in
the weakside corner.
Tatum simply waits to see who Butler commits to. Butler drops
back to Horford once he senses Robinson is nearly back to White; in
that moment, Tatum fires a bounce pass to White for a layup.
All of that happens within an eight-second span.
To be frank, Tatum wasn't nailing all of
that, to this degree, at the beginning of the season. He
certainly wasn't doing it with a level of consistency last year.
But strides have continued to be made. Even when the result wasn't
great, you could see the process improve. He became smarter. The
decisions were made quicker, and with more nuance.
Tatum had seen a little bit of everything through that Game 5.
He saw a version of that switch-with-help-behind-it defense during
his first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets. In the next
round, the Milwaukee Bucks flowed between sending two to the ball
and daring Tatum to beat them in drop coverage.
The drop coverage bet was a poor one on the surface — Tatum is a
dynamite pull-up shooter — but the Bucks knew there was refinement
needed from Tatum inside the arc.
The floater wasn't consistent yet. If the easy pull-up wasn't
there, Tatum sometimes struggled with
driving too deeply into the pocket, either
turning drop coverage into a late switch or allowing his own
defender to recover. That led to some ugly late-clock
The Heat were a juiced-up version of both. They occasionally
rushed Tatum with two defenders like the Bucks did. They gave up
switches, but packed the paint with helpers like the Nets attempted
to do. Through the mix of coverages, Tatum thrived, struggled, and
ultimately thrived again.
I asked him about his comfort level against, well,
everything after that Game 5 against Miami.
"Comfort level? From a scale of 1-to-10?" Tatum quipped with a
smile before answering. "I'm very comfortable. Each series presents
different challenges. Miami guards differently than Milwaukee did.
Watching film from game to game, that's the key. Seeing what you
did well, what you can improve on, what adjustments they might make
and seeing what to be ready for."
Tatum couldn't quite crack the final boss in the Golden State
His series averages were fine — 21.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 7.0
assists, 1.2 steals and 0.7 blocks — but not up to superstar
standards. For every bonus, there seemed to be an annoying
negative. Seven dimes from your star wing is dope, but nearly four
turnovers a game isn't what you want. He shot a robust 45.5% from
three on 7.3 attempts per game, but those inside-the-arc struggles
— 31.6% from two on 12.7 attempts — popped up in a big way.
The Warriors deserve credit for never letting Tatum get
comfortable. They made sure he saw a healthy dose of switches (74
picks), drop coverage (45 picks), and a mix of hedges and blitzes
(42), per Second Spectrum. And regardless of what the initial
coverage was, the Warriors had a way of varying their help defense
Sometimes, they'd pinch the help in early to restrict driving
lanes. Other times, Tatum would have early access to the rim, only
to be met by late helpers converging into the paint. That
cat-and-mouse game ultimately decided the half-court battle in this
Add in the bodies he saw — Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson, Gary
Payton II and others got a taste of the Tatum assignment — and it
should come as no surprise that this was Tatum's worst playoff
series as a driver. On possessions where Tatum shot or passed to
someone who shot after a drive, the Celtics generated 0.77 points
per possession (PPP). It ended a streak of stark improvement from
Tatum in that area:
- Brooklyn: 0.89 PPP on 52 direct drives
- Milwaukee: 0.96 PPP on 74 direct drives
- Miami: 1.08 PPP on 64 direct drives
- Golden State: 0.77 PPP on 77 direct drives
It wasn't always pretty. Not that they
need my permission, but Celtic fans and NBA
enthusiasts are within their right to be disappointed in Tatum's
output during the Finals.
All I ask is that we don't lose the plot.
Tatum didn't struggle on his own; remember, before Draymond
Green missed a chunk of games during the regular season, it was the
Warriors who held the NBA's best defensive rating. They pinpointed
what Tatum's weaknesses were and poked at him. And this is on top
of what Tatum was asked to do defensively — often navigating the
Green assignment so he could switch onto Stephen Curry when
necessary, or dealing with drives from Wiggins on the ball.
Beyond that, look at the growth Tatum has made as a scorer and
playmaker over the past year-and-a-half. Heck, look at the growth
he made this postseason. Defenses keyed in on him, threw
different schemes at him within the
same quarter, and he was mostly able to figure
This is a sour end to the season, but it's a season in which
Tatum was an All-Star once again, earned All-NBA First Team honors,
finished sixth in MVP voting and led his team to the NBA Finals for
the first time.
This was a darn good year, and now Tatum has to stew in this
Finals loss for a bit. His history already suggests he'll get
better heading into next season; with this frustrating finish, I'd
bet the house on Tatum making a substantial leap over the
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