On a night where his teammates flourished, especially down the stretch, Jayson Tatum sat back in his locker, sporting a skullcap as he was about to enter the cool Boston evening and just shook his head.
He finished Monday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks 1-for-18 from the field, a career-worst performance on a night where the Celtics found out Gordon Hayward would be out for six weeks following left hand surgery.
The Celtics’ depth delivered in the 116-106 win, with Kemba Walker hitting eight 3-pointers en route to 29 points and Jaylen Brown adding 25 along with 11 rebounds.
Tatum, meanwhile, scored 5 points to go along with 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Perhaps last season, Tatum would have allowed his shooting woes to affect his entire game because he based his performance strictly on scoring. That’s what most young players do. They judge every game on points scored.
Eventually they realize scoring makes the highlight shows and may lead to more personal prestige, but it doesn’t necessarily win games. Tatum remained focused despite his laughable night. On one shot, Tatum flicked a 10-footer that hit the rim five times before bouncing off.
“Sometimes, 1-f0r-18, you just got to laugh, laugh it off,” he said. “We won. So that’s the positive. I mean, a couple of times where it bounced six times, I was like [expletive], you got to keep playing. In the end, all that matters is if you win. Eight in a row, so we just keep winning.”
The Celtics need Tatum to serve as a leader. They have realized his immense talent since his draft workout almost three years ago. They realized his determination to be great and his passion to improve quickly. But Tatum has made the habit of slumping his head after missed shots or arguing with officials when he feels he’s been fouled.
His mental approach to the game is developing. Tatum will be relied upon to provide more this season after the departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, and now with Hayward gone, he’s going to have to do a little bit more in other categories besides scoring.
“I keep saying we’ve just got to do more,” Tatum said. “Obviously he’s a great scorer, but he’s a great playmaker, especially in the pick-and-roll, finding guys so everybody has to do a good job in the pick-and-roll, spraying it, because he’s really good at that.”
And it’s an encouraging sign when the Celtics can beat a quality Western Conference opponent by 10 points and Tatum hits 5.5 percent of his shots.
“Just one of those nights, just means a lot of good nights are coming,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I don’t lose sleep over missed shots.”
About two hours after the game, Tatum posted a picture of himself at the Celtics’ practice facility in Brighton, ready to get some shots up. As much as he could count this game as an aberration, a fluke, he wasn’t about to end his night thinking about the misses.
Before he hit the floor in Brighton, Tatum was asked how he would immediately react to the worst shooting night of his career.
“I don’t know; I’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “I’ve never went 1-for-18, but the good thing about the NBA, good or bad, you’ve got a game or two, so get this one behind me. But at least we won.”
And perhaps the support Tatum received from his teammates is the most distinct difference between this year’s team and last year’s bickering bunch.
While Tatum may have gotten glares after missed shots or the “You should have passed me the ball” look from his teammates, Walker implored Tatum to keep shooting.
Tatum missed his first 10 shots before scoring on a layup with 8:06 left in the third period. Then he missed his last seven shots.
“Stay confident but a tough night,” Tatum said. “Like I said, I never get too excited when I play well and never get down on myself. Just try to laugh this one off, hopefully I don’t ever have a game like this again.”
Tatum’s reaction was also a sign of maturity and so was his decision to drive directly to the practice facility to get up some shots while most Bostonians were sound asleep.
It was one of those nights for Tatum, where the ball just took funny bounces or on one sequence hit the side of the backboard on a corner 3-pointer.
Great shooters have bad nights, but it’s how you react to them that make a great player.
Tatum desperately wants to be great and it’s that confidence that encouraged him to shoot 18 times despite missing 17. But he maintained his poise, was able to contribute in other ways and his teammates combined to score 111 points.
So there will be nights where Tatum’s scoring is needed, but this wasn’t one of them.
He’ll get his shots up late Monday and then move on.