For Jayson Tatum, Game 7s without LeBron James were a good thing.
That is, until Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals.
A rolled left ankle in the first play of the game pretty much set the tone for Tatum’s night and that of the Boston Celtics. Ankle injuries are both painful and tricky, so it certainly affected how he got to his spots and went to work offensively.
The nightmare scenario for Tatum was not lost on the Celtics, as they struggled offensively and could not overcome the Miami Heat’s 3-point shooting. Sensing blood in the water, the Heat pounced on Tatum and Jaylen Brown, even forcing the latter to cough up the ball eight times.
Tatum’s 14 points were tied for his lowest output in the Eastern Conference Finals but he’ll be the first to tell you that his injury was not an excuse for his performance. The two-time First Team All-NBA selection played for 42 minutes, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished out four assists. The offense wasn’t there, but Tatum did not go down without a fight.
Not going down without a fight. That phrase was the theme for Tatum’s postseason. His offensive explosions have become commonplace even in the postseason, but it was in these playoffs where he was tested in other ways. His shot was taken away and at times, he had to see his teammates do the scoring for him. But as the leader, the fate of the game was still on his shoulders even when his offense disappeared. His response? Digging deep when it mattered.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Tatum famously redeemed himself in Game 6, atoning for three atrocious quarters with a gem of a performance in the fourth quarter. The previous misses did not deter Tatum and after seeing his 3-point shot from the corner fall, he would not be denied a win.
Tatum’s resurgence also brought back to life Boston’s postseason and helped them advance to this series against Miami. When the Celtics went down 3-0, Tatum helped lead a Boston comeback that forced Game 7 against the Heat. Instead of scoring, the former Duke Blue Devil did a little of everything just to help his team claw back from a pretty deep hole and if the Celtics won Game 7, we would be talking about Tatum doing whatever he needed to do to win rather than ask what would have happened if he didn’t sprain his ankle.
A performance like that shouldn’t tarnish his legacy, especially when put against what Tatum did to bring Boston to the conference finals. Yes they were the favorites entering the series, but the way the Celtics battled back to move within a win of the NBA Finals deserves some merit too.
A great season and a bad ending can coexist, but the latter should not discredit the former. It can be difficult to comprehend at times, more so when the emotions are raw. For Tatum, it may take some time to process, but at 25, he has already achieved much more than most, if not all his peers. Him finishing with averages of 27.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs is not something to dismiss, especially when he earned those against defenders like Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and PJ Tucker.
That being said, this latest playoff exit will fuel Tatum just like his previous postseason disappointments have only made him better. He will likely spend some time to rest and recover from the ankle injury, but offseason workouts and a potential stint with Team USA in the 2023 FIBA World Cup could do him good, similar to how Kobe Bryant’s fourth NBA title came after winning the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics.
There shouldn’t be a doubt with regard to Jayson Tatum’s greatness, but it can also be said that Game 7 was obviously not one of his best games. If anything, it would be interesting to see how he bounces back from this, because what he does next can define his legacy more than whatever happened this season.