Jayson Tatum’s Perception Won’t Change No Matter What Celtics Do

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One thing the Eastern Conference playoffs have highlighted for the Celtics is how much of an enigma Jayson Tatum is.

The superstar was named to his fourth All-NBA Team and helped set up Boston to make another appearance in the NBA Finals. Well, “helped” might be a stretch for some folks since the Eastern Conference finals birthed a narrative that Tatum is being “carried” by his teammates.

Despite breaking scoring 10 points in overtime, turnovers and late-game shot selection were the story for Tatum in Game 1. Jaylen Brown put on an incredible 40-point performance in Game 2 on Thursday, but the TD Garden faithful were left wondering about Tatum and his playoff performance.

It’s a perplexing situation for Tatum. You can show people his numbers, and they’ll say that he’s just stat-padding. He can be the leading scorer in a blowout win, but inferior competition will be cited to discredit his performance.

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Would winning the NBA title and NBA Finals MVP help change the narrative? Maybe, but this Celtics team is loaded and has been a wagon throughout the season. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens built a juggernaut that makes other fanbases jealous that their star player isn’t getting the same help that Tatum received. So if Boston wins, it met expectations. Even if Tatum won Finals MVP, Brown, Derrick White, Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis would be given just as much or maybe more credit.

What also doesn’t help Tatum is his demeanor. The 26-year-old is only known for two things: Kobe Bryant is his favorite player, and he’s a dad. You compare him to someone like Anthony Edwards, who is known to have a bombastic personality and make thrilling highlight plays every night, and it goes a long way in explaining why a mundane Edwards performance isn’t as scrutinized as a bland Tatum outing.

Tatum is in his seventh season, so his personality is what it is. Does he have the “Mamba Mentality” like his idol? Sometimes he does, like in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals last season.

However, you could probably count on one hand the amount of signature playoff moments Tatum has had, which isn’t a great sign for how many deep playoff runs he’s been on. His style of play also isn’t the most attractive. Joe Mazzulla’s offense tends to be a “your turn, my turn” game. And Tatum is extremely efficient in that kind of game. He can lull a defender so he can step back for a 3-pointer or just drive to the basket for a lay-up or draw a foul.

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It’s not the most exciting and why NBA detractors hate the volume of 3-point shooting. Tatum is so efficient that it looks robotic. Stephen Curry shooting threes is exciting because he can find so many ways to get to his shot. On the other hand, Tatum has his usual moves, and the game comes so easily to him that he makes everything look effortless.

However, Brown was feeling it in Game 2, so why break his rhythm? It’s why Brown commanded a 38.2% usage rate compared to Tatum’s 25.8%.

That’s totally fine in the big picture. Basketball is a team game, and your ability to succeed has as much to do with everyone also on the court as with your own individual ability. But that doesn’t fit with what pop culture and nostalgia want from a superstar player. People want “alpha” personalities, even though they don’t actually exist in human nature. There’s a contradiction of having a “me” attitude while also not being selfish or self-centered.

Tatum is the antithesis of all that. He might deep down know that all that matters are rings. Who’s the No. 1 option? He probably doesn’t care as long as the team wins. Will he do what it takes to facilitate that? Yes. But that might not always mean he’s going to command a high usage rate.

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If the Celtics were in the conference finals or NBA Finals, that would just confirm people’s priors on Tatum. And defenders could blame Brown or Mazzulla for not rising to the occasion when it mattered most.

It could seen as a Tim Duncan-esque approach of the low-key superstar, or Tatum could thrive as the closer when his teammates don’t have it in a tight game. While all that sounds great, it might not be enough to sway those who think Tatum is passive or a No. 2 to Brown. We’ll just have to wait to see if the Celtics get it done and if the narrative around Tatum actually does change or not.

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