Reasons For Optimism Before Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Finals

Boston: They snagged home court advantage despite Tatum, not because of him — and he’ll play better

Although the Game 2 blowout loss has left a sour taste in Boston fans’ mouths, it’s important to remember that splitting the first two games should be viewed as a massive success — and that’s despite Boston’s best player being unable to hit a thing inside the three-point line.

Tatum shot 3-17 in Boston’s Game 1 win and 8-19 in the Game 2 loss, but those numbers are a little misleading. Tatum has shot an impressive 7-14 from deep (6-9 in Game 2!) but an astonishingly poor 4-22 from two-point range across those two games.

Game 1 was somehow Tatum’s better game, as he countered his poor shooting with 13 assists against just two turnovers. In Game 2, Tatum had four turnovers to just three assists as Boston’s ancillary players combined to shoot roughly zero for ten thousand.

Tatum’s defense, to my eyes, hasn’t been quite as good as usual this series, particularly when helping, but he’s certainly still a strong defender overall.

Jayson is easily a top-10 player in the NBA and is knocking on the door of being top-five, which is what makes his high variance in play so frustrating. But if he’s shown anything, it’s an unwavering ability to bounce back off the mat with amazing performances.

Jayson went 5-19 in Game 2 against Brooklyn in Round 1 before responding with a 39-point outburst in Game 3. Against Milwaukee in the second round, he had a 10-point, three-assist Game 3 before rattling off three straight 30-point games (including an absolutely epic 46 points on 32 shots in an elimination Game 6). And Tatum had another 10-point game against Miami in a Game 3 loss before scoring 31 points (including 16 free throw attempts) in Game 4.

There is a clear pattern here. Tatum will have a game where he gets frustrated with a lack of foul calls and starts pressing the issue with ill-advised jump shots to try and force himself back into rhythm (he’s developed a bad habit of throwing his hands up in frustration at the lack of a whistle — coach Ime Udoka is constantly berating him to stop complaining and get back on defense). In the next game or two, however, Tatum rededicates himself to driving. An aggressive Tatum is the best Tatum. He can hit rarefied heights when he isn’t in love with his bag and instead utilizes his physical tools to their best ability.

This shot is an excellent example of what he needs to excise:

He backs down a feisty Andrew Wiggins, then picks up his dribble and starts to go into what would’ve been an early shot clock, difficult fadeaway (mistake #1). He sees Draymond coming and pauses to try and draw the foul. Then, when Draymond gets the clean strip (mistake #2), he complains to the refs and gives up a 3-on-2 fast break to the Warriors instead of getting back (mistake #3).

Instead of that, we need to see more assertiveness. Tatum gets a mismatch later in Game 2, but instead of taking the easy way out, he puts his head down and drives through a thicket of Warriors to draw the foul:

Tatum is still learning how to draw fouls. Too often, he chooses to be James Harden instead of Jimmy Butler. Harden famously drives with the ball extended far from his body and relies upon his hand and arm strength to throw his arms into defenders and hope to generate whistles. He drives to draw fouls, not to score, and when refs don’t give him the whistle, it results in an ugly shot attempt with no hope of going in. Tatum often does the same thing.

Butler, on the other hand, is a master at using his shoulders while driving to bump guys off-balance — the fouls are a benefit, not the end goal, and the methodology lets him keep his balance and put up a credible shot attempt if the whistle doesn’t come.

Tatum is still learning when to use both tricks. He’s not as strong as either of those guys (yet), but he is lengthier than both, and he can leverage the threat of his jumper in a way Butler never could. I’d bet anything that efficient foul-drawing is a foundational tentpole of his off-season work.

Until then, however, Tatum needs to try to score rather than try to draw fouls, and he can’t give in to frustration and start settling. To his credit, he’s very good at letting past frustrations go and focusing on the next game. This postseason, Tatum hasn’t had three poor shooting games in a row yet, and that’s despite playing Miami and Milwaukee, two of the biggest, baddest defenses around. Golden State is no less of a challenge, but the odds are good that Tatum will figure out a way to attack this defense and stabilize an up-and-down Boston offense.

Tatum can brutalize Steph Curry, Jordan Poole, and even my beloved Gary Payton II both down low and on the perimeter. Payton can bother Tatum’s handle, but Tatum has figured out that Payton can’t hang with him physically, and Tatum made all three of the shots he attempted in Game 2 with Payton as the primary defender. Curry, Poole, and Payton are too small to contest Tatum’s jumper, and he has shot threes over Curry, especially, as if he wasn’t even there.

Tatum will have as many long balls as he wants this series, and he won’t continue being this horrendous from inside the arc. Despite the bad optics of Game 2, Boston did exactly what they wanted in stealing a game. When the Jayson pendulum inevitably swings back up, the Warriors will have a real problem on their hands.

Golden State: Boston can’t get to the rack

It’s not just Tatum struggling to score in the lane. Golden State has done a remarkable job of keeping Boston from getting layups and dunks. Boston has a paltry 11 field goal attempts and seven fouls drawn at the rim through two combined games, including just three shots and two fouls in their anemic Game 2 (numbers from Cleaning the Glass exclude garbage time, which was virtually the entire fourth quarter).

By comparison, Golden State (a team that rarely pressures the rim) has 19 FGA and six fouls drawn over the same time frame.

This isn’t a huge surprise – Golden State allowed the fewest shots at the rim in the regular season, with just 27% of opponent’s attempts coming in that area (Boston was second in this metric, with 28% allowed). Boston also isn’t particularly aggressive in going to the hoop, relying more on drive-and-kicks or the silky midrange games of Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

But to turn the water off to this degree is impressive.

Golden State aggressively helps down low and relies upon intelligent defenders to help-the-helper. Watch this beautiful defensive possession, and pay attention to what happens away from the ball:

Jaylen Brown dusts Kevon Looney on the perimeter. Klay Thompson quickly rotates off of Rob Williams and contests the shot with perfect verticality at the rim, but the most important part here is Draymond Green coming down hard and fast off of Jayson Tatum — Jayson Tatum! — to get to Williams and prevent a lob. Steph Curry, guarding Marcus Smart, backpedals so that he can play zone on both Tatum and Smart and disrupt a potential kickout pass (although the Warriors are quite confident that Brown isn’t capable of making that pass anyway).

Golden State has done a superb job of frustrating Boston’s primary slashers and drivers with active hands in the paint, forcing turnovers and causing various Celtics to settle for floaters and short jumpers. There’s a massive disparity in a team’s likelihood of scoring on a three-foot layup vs. a seven-foot teardrop shot.

Golden State took all the talk about Boston’s historic defense this season personally. They were right behind Boston in most defensive metrics but received relatively little attention for their triumphs on that side of the ball. Outside of one bad quarter at the end of Game 1, Golden State should feel confident that their defense is more than a match for Boston’s offense.

Bonus Thought: Draymond should be very, very careful

What a quote from Draymond about the refs:

There’s been a lot of hand wringing online about officials giving Draymond far too much leeway in Game 2 and allowing him to get away with more than anyone else would be allowed. Draymond enjoys picking up a quick technical foul, then testing the refs’ patience for the rest of the game.

Former NBA referee Steve Javie was even asked about it during the broadcast, and he responded with this slightly mind-blowing quote:

“I think that’s part of good officiating – is the fact that you have to know who has the technical fouls and in this situation one of the players does. Is this enough to warrant an ejection is what you have to think about.”

– Steve Javie

On the one hand, I understand his sentiment. It’s a little bit of a lose-lose situation for the refs, who absolutely do not want to eject a player during the Finals and put even more of a spotlight on the much-maligned refereeing this postseason.

On the other hand, it’s all true. Draymond does get away with more than anyone else, and it’s a tough watch for neutral fans. Refs should be allowed to use judgment in heated situations, but enough is enough. When a player is abusing the system and begging for a second tech, well, maybe the zebras should give them what they’re asking for.

Referees don’t like when players take advantage of them in high-leverage moments. It was just a few series ago when Chris Paul blatantly embarrassed the refs by tricking them into one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen. They responded by fouling him out the very next game on a series of well-deserved flopping calls (and it’s worth noting that Chris Paul argued against exactly none of them — he knew he was reaping what he’d sown).

Draymond has accrued four technicals this postseason, and he knows the refs will be watching him closely next game. Seven technicals incur an automatic one-game suspension, something Draymond knows well. I’d expect him to play it cool for a game or two to let this narrative cool off and give him some breathing room before amping the intensity back up in Game 5 or 6.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.