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Jayson Tatum Finds Himself Leading the Celtics in Game 5

Key Highlights

    • Jayson Tatum dropped 31 points, 11 assists (two turnovers), eight rebounds and two steals in Game 5 to power the Boston Celtics past the Dallas Mavericks and win the NBA Finals 2023-24.
    • Despite shooting 1-of-7 from beyond the arc, Tatum had 10 of 17 two-pointers, including 8-of-11 at the rim.

Jayson Tatum’s Game 5 started much like his past few outings: slow.

He left for a while following a pirouette on the post. He hit a long ball that pulled up. He was sent back to the hard charger to the cup. He settled down and grabbed the transition when Luka Doncic blocked his path to the hoop.

Just 7.5 minutes in and already 0-of-4, another poor shooting game — understandably overshadowing an excellent NBA Finals showing — seems to be waiting for him. Instead, Tatum finished with 31 points (57.4 percent true shooting), 11 assists (two turnovers), eight rebounds and two steals. He converted his last 11 of 20 shots, despite hitting 1 of 6 triples during that stretch.

About two hours after that bad start, he and the Boston Celtics were atop the NBA, enjoying a 106-88, Game 5 romp that earned them banner No. 18. He was the defining player in Monday’s close victory. He finished the game on the sidelines, comforted by longtime teammate Al Horford who reminded him of his new, impending title, “You’re a champion! You are a champion!” and celebrating with his son, Deuce, telling him “We did it! We did it!”

As a scorer, these Finals weren’t a five game streak for Tatum. He worked hard, including 6-of-22, 6-of-16, and 4-of-10 nights; even his best performances were 11-of-24 and 11-of-26, the latter of which included a 4-of-13 struggle from deep. He averaged 22.2 points on 50.5 percent true shooting.

However, in Game 5, with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the floor of the TD Garden, the star wing found himself and showed how far he has come since he first announced himself as a key member of the Celtics contending for the title.

In Tatum’s first three seasons, he was a perfect scorer, converting 40.1 percent from three-point range. He looked ready to establish himself as one of the league’s best athletes. Those traits, however, masked a serious shortcoming from inside the arc that kept him from being a complete scorer. He shot just 48.4 percent from two-point range, adorned with a weak, inconsistent, and erratic finish.

In each of those three seasons, Cleaning the Glass, he twice ranked at 35 percent or below the rim among the best and made 60.3 percent of those shots in that span. Over the next four years, he developed into a top finisher with a reduced outside stroke; he shot 36.4 percent from three and 69.6 percent from the basket, never shooting less than 69 percent around the rim.

Those different ways came together on Monday. Both blocked Tatum’s scoring ceiling and gave him a running lane to thrive when his long, long release threw him like it did that night.

Whether it was from outside or just any kind of jumper, he never found a reliable way to score as a shooter. On looks beyond 4 feet, he was 3-of-13. However, at the rim, he was 8-of-11 and finished the postseason at 69.4 percent — a stark contrast to his 28.3 three-point mark. In the finals, he went 24-of-37 (64.9 percent) around the hoop and 10-of-38 (26.3 percent) from deep. In the regular season, he shot a career-high 72 percent (83rd percentile) and 37.6 percent from three.

Ten of his last 20 shots came at the rim on Monday. He made eight of them.

Again and again, without any real concern for the main defender, he massaged his way to the hoop. According to, he recorded 25 drives with a career-best 18 points and three assists in those drives. Entering Game 5, he was averaging 6.8 points and 1.5 assists on 17.8 drives in the Finals. As a rookie, he averaged 5.7 drives per game.

He absorbed the contact. He opened small free slots with slick combos, smart footwork and a loose package of joints. He slapped the shoulders of the defenders to create space when there was none. Active, armed force over the years seems like a strong dream of a strong hope put him in Maverick after Maverick in buckets.

Doncic, Dereck Lively II, Daniel Gafford, Josh Green, PJ Washington, Maxi Kleber – he moved past them all, as if each marked another step on the track that brought him closer to his first title.

The lanky, inexperienced, precocious Tatum wouldn’t have been as successful as he was in Game 5. If the jumper called out sick, he couldn’t get the ball rolling again. Heck, the Tatum of two years ago — a newly crowned All-NBA First Team wing coming off his first Finals appearance — wouldn’t have been as successful as he was in Game 5.

In the six-game losing streak, that Tatum scored 21.5 points on 48.1 percent true shooting, improved by 45.5 percent three-point shooting. He made 9-of-17 field goals at the rim and 24-of-76 from two (31.6 percent). Bolstered by Draymond Green, the Golden State Warriors’ defense may have been stronger than Dallas’, which was a very good defense in its own right. But Tatum’s individual development is the impetus for his Game 5 more than any surrounding component (added space, different defensive matchups, etc.).

Tatum also didn’t play down as much of a player as this version. A lot of the same reading and delivery was there, and it’s not like he’s a passer now. But the speed with which he made countless smart decisions ignited the offense as Boston’s engine. When it has been reliably shaken by the help of timely or aggressive limbs, it saw the same methods in this round and punished them.

Back in 2021-22, he tallied 42 assists and 23 turnovers against the Warriors, and had 148 assists per 100 turnovers throughout the postseason. This year, he posted 36 dimes to 16 in the Finals (2.25 assist-to-turnover ratio), topped with 11 assists on two assists in Game 5. It capped his career-best Finals game as a passer (assists 119 , 50 turnovers, 2.38 A/TO average).

Boston’s spacing doesn’t require the passing prowess of Doncic, Trae Young or Nikola Jokic. But any effective offense wants reliable accuracy from its primary receivers based on how the defense bends in front of them.

For most of this series and the postseason, Tatum nailed those needs. The second-highest three-assist total of his 113-game playoff career came in the 2024 Finals, including Game 5. He quickly acknowledged how well Dallas’ defenses interacted with his orbit and capitalized.

In two of the Celtics’ four wins, Tatum’s highlights have been in role-playing attributes: rebounding, quick decision-making, and defensive chops. In the most noisy sections, his goals have fallen significantly from the level he had built as one of the most prominent players in this league. The subtlety of his game continued to evolve and ensure that he made an impact, but not to the degree of a player – especially not to the level of a three-time NBA First Team honor.

In Game 5, it all came crashing down. You have successfully scored a goal. He created partners. He snared eight planks. He took two thieves. He closed the gaps for help. He got into a fight where he attacked.

There are many things like the promising 19-year-old who finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and drafted LeBron James during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals six years ago. But there were also many things that underscored his evolution into a better and more unique player.

A star who didn’t develop into an elite shooter, or someone who stuck to the three-ball dynamic. He is a determined, intelligent, high-class driver and, most importantly after Monday’s efforts, an NBA champion – like all his teammates and many Celtic stars before him.

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