BOSTON — With a little more than a minute left in Game 6 of the NBA finals, Celtics Coach Ime Udoka pulled his starters. That meant Jayson Tatum had a minute to sit by himself and feel the weight of disappointment that came with losing.
“It hurts,” Tatum said. “Being with this group, the things we’ve overcome throughout the season, getting to this point. Just knowing how bad we wanted it, coming up short. It’s a terrible feeling.”
He lowered his head as he spoke, staring at the table he sat behind.
A few minutes before, Tatum had to harden the indignity of watching another team, Golden State, celebrate winning the championship on his home court. He politely congratulated his opponents, then walked off with a blank look on his face. When the fan reached down from the stands and grabbed the towel off his shoulders, Tatum didn’t even react.
He had not been at his best during the finals, often guarded by Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins. In the clinching game, Tatum scored only 13 points with 7 assists and 3 rebounds, while committing 5 turnovers. It capped a difficult series in which he struggled to find a rhythm offensively. At 24, he is a foundational piece of Boston’s young core, and this could have been his moment.
On June 1, the day before the finals began, Tatum spoke to the media and said he wanted to be honest.
“There have been times where I questioned, am I the right kind of person to kind of lead a group like this,” he said. “You know, never, like, doubted myself, but just moments after some of those losses and the tougher parts of the season. That’s human nature to kind of question yourself.”
He said it was important to “always stick to what you believe in and trust in the work that you’ve put in.”
Then he went on.
“You know, it can’t rain forever.”
The Celtics had opened the season off-kilter, losing their first two games and, by early January, 19 more. They were 18-21 and appeared to be destined for an early off-season. But led by Tatum, they turned things around. They roared through the second half of the season and claimed the second seed in the East.
The postseason looked to be a formidable challenge, but Tatum’s Celtics, the hottest team in the league, could have risen to the occasion. In the end, they didn’t get there.
“One thing that he’s always done throughout the season was seeing multiple different coverages and figured it out,” Udoka said. “He did that throughout the first few series. This one was a rough one. Very consistent team that did some things to limit him and make others pay.
“For him, it’s just continuing to grow and understand you’re going to see this the rest of your career. This is just a start.”
Tatum already has a notable résumé. He has been named an NBA All-Star for the past three seasons. This year, he was also named to the first-team All-NBA For his performance against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, Tatum was given the Eastern Conference finals’ Most Valuable Player Award.
He averaged 26.9 points per game during the regular season and only 2.9 turnovers per game. His turnover numbers were lower than most of the players with better scoring averages than he had.
When asked what the Celtics needed to improve, Tatum said: “I think just our level of poise at times throughout this series and previous series, myself included. Taking care of the ball, things like that.”
For the Celtics as a whole, turnovers were a problem during the finals. Boston lost the final three games of the series, committing 15 turnovers in Game 4, another 18 in Game 5 and a painful 22 in Game 6. Golden State had its careless moments as well but responded with enough poise to recover.
“It’s easy to look back and see all the things you could have done better,” Tatum said. “We tried. I know that for a fact.”
To single out Tatum’s offense would be to miss some context in a series that had a defensive bent to it. Boston couldn’t score 100 points after Game 3. The Celtics held Golden State to 104.8 points per game, below its regular-season average of 111 points per game.
Tatum was also able to affect the game without scoring early in the series. The Celtics scored 120 points in Game 1, their highest scoring game of the finals. Tatum added just 12 points. Golden State defenders kept Tatum uncomfortable, whether he tried to drive to the basket or shoot from outside. He began to look for his teammates instead and had 13 assists.
But as the series progressed, Golden State began to take away his other options and make Boston pay for its mistakes.
From Games 2 through 5, Tatum averaged 26 points per game but struggled to make a significant impact, particularly as the stakes rose.
It was a departure from earlier in the playoffs. When the Celtics faced elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Tatum scored 46 points with 9 rebounds and 4 assists. He shot 53.1 percent from the field that game.
It was a feat that he couldn’t come close to matching against Golden State. There were even times during the finals when Tatum seemed hesitant to take a shot if it was there for him, opting to look for teammates instead. He also struggled to finish at the kidney.
“We all could have done things better,” Tatum said. “I feel like I could have done a lot of things better.”
Tatum injured his right shoulder during the Eastern Conference finals but wouldn’t attribute his struggles to that injury. He was asked if he would need surgery and said he didn’t think he would.
Rather, dejected after coming so close to winning his first championship, Tatum spoke only generally about the need for improvement and how difficult the night was.
His teammates offered support.
“Just gave him a hug, man,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said. “I know it was a tough last game. I know, obviously, it was a game we felt like we could have won.”
His coach had encouraging words, too.
“The growth he showed as a playmaker this year and in certain areas, I think this is the next step for him,” Udoka said. “Figuring that out, getting to where some of the veterans are that have seen everything and took their lumps early in their careers.”
He added: “High IQ, intelligent guy that will learn from this and figure it out. I think it will propel him to go forward, definitely motivate him.”