Boston Celtics

Tatum's admission he was ‘nervous' for NBA Finals is a good thing

The Celtics star's candor is a sign of his growth over the last two years.

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No player in the NBA has seen more postseason basketball than Jayson Tatum since he entered the league in 2017. So it was a bit surprising to hear the Boston Celtics star admit he had butterflies entering Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on Thursday night.

"To be honest, I was nervous. I ain’t going to lie," Tatum told reporters after Boston's 107-89 win over the Dallas Mavericks. "I was nervous in like an anxious way, as like a little kid. It’s surreal being in the Finals."

That doesn't sound like an ideal mindset, especially for a player like Tatum, who struggled offensively on the Finals stage two years ago in the Celtics' six-game loss to the Golden State Warriors. And a look at Tatum's offensive stats in Game 1 -- 16 points on 6-of-16 shooting to go along with six turnovers -- might suggest the nerves got to him again Thursday night.

Those numbers doesn't tell the full story, however. Unlike in years past, Tatum didn't let his offensive struggles impact the other parts of his game: He contributed a team-high 11 rebounds, five assists and one block to finish as a plus-19, the second-best plus-minus on the team behind guard Jrue Holiday.

"Just staying present, staying in the moment," Tatum added when asked about dealing with the pressure of the Finals stage. "Like I said, I was, in a positive way, I was nervous before the game. I was like a kid on the first day of school.

"I know how exciting and big of a deal all of this is, so just finding a space to enjoy the moment and have fun playing basketball."

Tatum's admission will serve as fodder for critics who believe the 26-year-old needs to be more of an "alpha" as the team's best player and lacks the "killer" mindset of the greats like his childhood idol, Kobe Bryant. But Tatum's candor Thursday night also is evidence that he's comfortable in his own skin and less concerned with how he's perceived.

That comfortability has manifested itself on the court, where Tatum has done whatever is needed to help the Celtics win.

In Game 1, that meant letting Kristaps Porzingis establish a rhythm early -- the C's big man racked up 11 first-quarter points in his return from a calf injury to ignite the Garden crowd, while Tatum attempted just two shots in the first 12 minutes. Later in the series, that might mean being more aggressive on offense, as Tatum was in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals with 36 points on 12 of 26 shooting to fuel a comeback win.

Either way, Tatum isn't forcing the issue, and it's hard to argue with the result: Boston is 7-0 this postseason when he scores 23 or fewer points.

"Just poise," Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said of what he saw from Tatum in Game 1. "They have a great defensive system, great defensive team, throw a bunch of stuff at you, different spacings, different coverages. The poise to just figure it out. Make the right play is going to be the most important thing. I thought he had that throughout the game."

If Tatum maintains that poise throughout this series, Boston could be raising Banner 18 in short order.

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