First off for the Celtics, the bad news: They got next to nothing from top dog Jayson Tatum in Game Three of their semifinal-round series against the Bucks. It wasn’t simply that he posted a four-of-19 clip from the field, with nothing in six tries beyond the arc, for 10 points all told. It was that he appeared too passive on both ends of the court; he had as many turnovers as assists, and only one rebound to show in 41 minutes on the court. His relative timidity was especially evident in the second half, through which he came up with a mere two markers. To argue that he was the single biggest reason for the loss would be to understate the obvious; even he knew it, and acknowledged it in his post-mortem.
That said, the Celtics can point to a silver lining as they prepare for the next match at the Fiserv Forum tomorrow: Notwithstanding Tatum’s atrocious outing, they still came to within a basket of snatching victory from the throes of defeat. The controversial call that had Defensive Player of the Year awardee Marcus Smart taking only two free throws instead of three with the Bucks up three 4.6 ticks from the final buzzer was a bummer, but, for the most part, officiating actually went their way. Not for nothing did they take a whopping 17 charity attempts compared to zero for the hosts in the last 16 and a half minutes.
Bottom line, the Celtics had ample chances to reclaim homecourt advantage in the best-of-seven affair. That they didn’t is a testament to the Bucks’ — or, to be more precise, two-time Most Valuable Player awardee Giannis Antetokounmpo’s — relentlessness. The Greek Freak just would not, could not, be denied, and he got more than enough support on offense from defensive ace Jrue Holiday in the absence of second-leading scorer Khris Middleton. Still, a fortunate bounce here, a different move there, and increased focus everywhere may well have changed the outcome for the green and white.
Tatum pledged to do better in Game Four, and it’s fair to argue that there’s really nowhere else for him to go but up. There’s no excuse for him to make zero of 10 field-goal tries with journeyman Wesley Matthews as his primary defender. And, after having had such an excellent first-round series that talking heads felt compelled to lump him among the handful of the National Basketball Association’s best of the best, he cannot possibly have negligible impact in other aspects of the game. Imagine LeBron James or Kevin Durant getting a single rebound in a postseason setting.
So, yes, Tatum needs to do better — make that much better — in order for the Celtics to prevail against the Bucks. If nothing else, the defending champions deserve respect, and he can give it by being at his finest against them.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.