The Warriors are one win away from securing their fourth NBA title in eight seasons, and a huge reason why has been their ability to contain Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum.
Golden State’s defense has essentially neutralized Tatum during these NBA Finals, holding the star to a 37.3 shooting percentage from the field through five games.
Prior to Game 5, Tatum’s 34.1 shooting percentage in the Finals was the lowest by any player with at least 20 attempts in series history.
As the Warriors took a three-games-to-two lead with their 104-94 victory on Monday night, however, Tatum finished with his highest shooting percentage of the Finals yet (50 percent) and went 5-for-9 from behind the 3 point line.
Still, he has continued to struggle late in the game and is averaging 3.2 points, 1.8 assists and 0.8 rebounds in the fourth quarter of the Finals. And as Game 5 showed, that’s not a great time to stop producing. But the warriors are looking to keep it that way.
While Tatum dropped his shots at a much higher rate in Game 5, Celtics coach Ime Udoka believes there’s still room for improvement for the 24-year-old as Boston looks to save its season in Game 6 at TD Garden on Thursday. And when he’s not making shots, Udoka believes his abilities can be used to draw Golden State defenders away from Boston’s other offensive threats.
“I would say we evaluate him on not only scoring but how he’s playing in general,” Udoka told reporters after practice on Wednesday. “From a scoring standpoint at times this whole series, not only fourth quarterer, he’s missed some things that he usually makes.
“But we do want him to be aggressive and find that balance, as he’s done all year. With Golden State specifically, they are trying to take him out at certain times of the game. But it’s on him to read that and us to put him in positions where, understanding he’s going to be doubled and be the bait at times, get everybody else involved. We have to make them pay as far as that.”
Udoka doesn’t think Tatum’s fourth-quarter struggles are any worse than those he has experienced throughout other quarters in the finals. It all comes down to making the right read against Golden State’s coverage, he said. It’s no easy task to guard the three-time NBA All-Star and 2022 All-NBA First Team selection, but the Warriors have made it look so.
Of course, there were some distractions for Tatum in the fourth quarter on Monday. The Celtics took issue with the referees during Game 5 and were visibly frustrated on the court, and a strange incident between Tatum and Draymond Green saw the pair get into a confrontation over the basketball during a time out.
“… Guys are going to be who they are and handle it however they feel best the way to handle it,” Udoka said of the incident on Wednesday. “Some people, like I said, get into it. Some ignore it. To each their own as far as that … You either use it or don’t. Doesn’t bother me at all.”
Udoka might not know if the incident with Green will impact Tatum’s play on the court moving forward in the series, but the young forward showed up to Wednesday’s press conference with a ball in hand and poked fun at the Warriors veteran with reporters.
With a tight grip on the basketball, Tatum reflected on the difficult task ahead for Boston and how he can overcome his crunch-time shooting troubles against a tough Golden State defense. But after running the NBA playoff gauntlet through the Eastern Conference to get here, the Tatum and the Celtics feel well prepared to force a Game 7.
“Yeah, I mean, they’re a great team,” Tatum told reporters. “They present different challenges than Milwaukee [Bucks] and Miami [Heat]. I think that’s just part of the playoffs, adjusting to different teams and the different challenges that they give you. You got to adjust pretty quickly moving from series to series.
“This is no different. So it’s a challenge nonetheless. It’s just a different one compared to playing Milwaukee and Miami.”
RELATED: Tatum explains strange interaction with Draymond in Game 5
The Warriors certainly aren’t the Bucks or the Heat, and Boston will have its work cut out when the team takes the floor on Thursday night.
Only one game separates Golden State from another championship ring, and Dub Nation knows the team might just be at its best when the pressure is on.
How Tatum responds will be key to the Celtics’ own title hopes.
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