Tatum could be named a first-team All-NBA performer when the teams are released in the coming days, and entered these playoffs with a chance to add some signature moments to his portfolio. He certainly has crafted some, including his 46-point eruption in Game 6 of the conference semifinals against the Bucks, when Boston faced elimination.
But his inconsistency and his inability to take care of the ball have damaged the Celtics, too. His low point arrived Saturday, when he went 3 for 14 from the field, which was held without a basket in the second half, and committed six turnovers.
“That is unacceptable,” Tatum said. “Honestly, I’ve got to play better. I feel like I left the guys hanging tonight. That’s on me.”
Opponents continue to throw waves of defenders at Tatum, determined to make someone else beat them. This is hardly a new approach, but the frequency and intensity of the swarms have increased during these playoffs.
Tatum often appears at ease finding gaps in these double teams, or simply looking over them and firing pinpoint passes to ignite new actions for teammates. But often during this postseason, he has simply looked confused.
He has at least six turnovers in five of Boston’s 14 playoff games and has an NBA-high 60 overall. His average of 4.3 per game is the highest among remaining players.
Tatum acknowledged that in games such as Saturday’s, when Boston fell behind by 26 points in the first half and spent the rest of the night climbing a hill, it can disrupt flow and lead to more errors. He was hardly alone: Boston committed a season-high 24 turnovers as a team.
“[We were] playing extremely fast, trying to get it back,” he said. “But every time we came to the huddle, we talked about how we can’t get it back in one play, that we’ve just got to keep playing the right way. It’s not going to just happen at the snap of our fingers. But obviously human nature plays a part. You’re down so much, you just want to get back so bad that you can just kind of move a little too fast sometimes.”
Udoka said it will be important for Tatum to develop reliable connections with his teammates early in games, partly to get them involved early, and partly to open things up for himself later in the game. When complementary pieces start drilling open shots, it suddenly presents defenses with tough decisions about how to approach Tatum.
But the Heat, whose tough, physical approach to defense usually leaves a mark, will remain formidable at that end of the floor.
“I’ve just got to play better,” Tatum said. “It’s as simple as that. This time of the season, everything on the line, I’ve just got to play better.”
During the regular season, Tatum’s presence was essential for Boston. The Celtics outscored opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions with Tatum on the court, and they were outscored by 1.9 when he sat. No other Celtics rotation player had on/off splits anywhere close to that 14-point gap.
But during the postseason, the Celtics actually have been better with Tatum on the bench. They have a plus-5.9 net rating when he plays, and plus-9.3 when he does not.
Tatum can be magnificent in isolation sets, but a team like the Heat who can deploy lineups that can switch at every position make it more challenging to hunt obvious mismatches. And there is always someone ready to help.
Still, Udoka is confident that his young star can figure this out before it is too late.
“One thing he’s done is bounce back very well, and we’re looking forward to that with him,” Udoka said. “Competitive guy, obviously. One of the best in the league. He understands an opportunity was lost. Guys aren’t going to play great every night. . . I don’t have to say much to him. We’re all [upset] about it, him probably more than anybody. Look forward to a good response.”
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Udoka said that guard Marcus Smart “took a pretty bad sprain” in the third quarter of Game 3 and was dealing with some swelling Sunday. His status for Game 4 Monday is not clear. Center Robert Williams, who missed Game 3 due to knee soreness, is feeling better but remains day-to-day.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.