BOSTON — As Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics have gone through their roller-coaster ride over the past several months, turning their season around and reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in his career, there’s been plenty of debate about Tatum’s standing within the NBA.
But as he prepares to play in his first NBA Finals game at TD Garden on Wednesday night when the Celtics host the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of the NBA Finals with the series tied 1-1, Tatum said he knows three more victories will give him an inarguable title: NBA champion.
“If you win a championship, they can debate a lot of things,” Tatum said after Boston’s practice Tuesday. “They can’t debate whether or not you’re a champion.
“Obviously lost the other night. Just looking forward to bouncing back tomorrow. First Finals game at home, at the Garden. It’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to it, enjoying this experience.”
Tatum has emerged as the face of Boston’s franchise, earning a first-team All-NBA selection this season and a third straight All-Star selection before subsequently leading Boston on a playoff run past Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler to bring the Celtics to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
But his rise has brought with it debates over whether he’s a star or if he has graduated into the rarified air of superstardom.
After being asked if anything about this run “as a superstar player” has surprised him, Tatum smiled as he turned the question around and asked where the idea he was or wasn’t a superstar even came from.
“A lot of people want to debate,” Tatum said. “I guess you just commented about the superstar, whatever that means, right? I’ve seen there’s a huge debate: Is he a superstar or is he not? I want to know where that came from. Did I tweet that? Did I ever say I’m a superstar, I’m on the verge? That never came from me.
“It’s been a big deal this last year and a half or two years. I see it all the time. There’s always been a question in the back of my head, I wonder who spoke on my behalf or said that or why that was such a big deal.”
Beyond the natural push-and-pull of barroom debates, the argument has also arisen, in part, because of Tatum’s growth as a player. He and the Celtics went through three future Hall of Famers in Durant, Antetokounmpo and Butler to get here — including two seven-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals and finals.
Tatum won the first Larry Bird Trophy as Most Valuable Player in the Eastern Conference finals after he averaged 25 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists against the Heat. He had 30 and 46 points in two road wins in the Bucks series. And he has even found ways to contribute when he has struggled, like when he had 13 assists while scoring 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting in Boston’s Game 1 win over Golden State.
And he has helped prevent the Celtics from losing two games in a row in the playoffs — something Boston has done only once, period, since late January, and that came when half its team didn’t play in Toronto on a second game of a back-to-back late in the season.
“You have a bad day at work, the next day you want to have a better day at work,” he said. “I think everybody can understand that. You lose a game, or don’t play well, you want to come back and have a better game.
“I’m sure everybody can relate to that, whatever you work at. It’s all the same.”
What’s not the same is being three games away from an NBA championship for the first time in his career.
Boston is going to have to focus on taking care of the ball. When the Celtics have 15 turnovers or fewer in the playoffs, like they did in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, they are 13-2. But when Boston has 16 or more turnovers, like it did in Game 2, it is 0-5.
“Turnovers are a big part of the game, especially when you see how many times we turned it over and how many points they scored off that,” Tatum said. “You just think, if you could limit those turnovers, you could limit a lot of those points.
“Yeah, I mean, basically we don’t turn the ball over, we give ourselves a better chance to win. That’s not rocket science. It’s just a matter of doing that more often than not.”