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Jayson Tatum is a superstar and a mere mortal. Why aren’t we OK with that?

Written by on May 14, 2024

For whatever reason, we want our NBA champions to have what we call “a killer’s instinct.” Michael Jordan epitomized it. Kobe Bryant followed suit. Kawhi Leonard might have got there for a minute.

In what other world would we enjoy this? Where else would Jordan be lauded for berating — even punching — teammates, calling them “fat,” “stupid,” “losers” and “garbagemen,” declaring, “I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me.” Fans of the Chicago Bulls booed the deceased architect of a six-time champion before his widow for little reason but the way Jordan portrayed him.

Bryant’s legacy is more complicated. We hardly know the real Leonard, whose public image reflects a basketball-playing robot. Is this what we should really be championing in the name of a killer’s instinct?

Which brings us to Jayson Tatum, more of an emo superstar. And he is killed for it. Vulnerability is considered a weakness in sports until it isn’t, and the Boston Celtics forward is floating in between.

All as he registered another 33 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in a 109-102 victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of their second-round series on Monday night. The win gives his Celtics a 3-1 lead in the series, a 7-2 record in the playoffs and an NBA-best +92 postseason margin of victory.

Imagine being so good at something that if you are not the absolute best at it you are considered a failure. This is where Tatum’s career currently lives, and this is where he was coming from when, after a blowout loss to the Cavaliers in Game 2 of this series, he opened up to us.

“Nobody was in there defeated or deflated,” said Tatum. “You never want to lose, especially in the playoffs. A lot of things we can learn from, and we get it, right? The world thinks we’re never supposed to lose, we’re supposed to win every game by 25, and it’s just not going to be like that all the time. We don’t expect it to be easy. It’s a good team we’re playing. It’s the second round of the playoffs, so it’s going to be fun the rest of the series, especially come [Game 3]. We’ve bounced back plenty of times. We lost, what, 16 games this year? So I’d like to think we responded pretty well the few times that we did lose.”

What was Tatum wrong about? His Celtics did respond, winning Games 3 and 4 on the road, where they are 4-0 in these playoffs. And people do act as though the sky is falling whenever Boston loses. It was that way in the 2022 NBA Finals, when the veteran Golden State Warriors made the Celtics look like they were led by a 24-year-old (because they were). It was that way in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, when the Miami Heat played remarkably well in an upset victory. (Funny how we forget Tatum played Game 7 on a high ankle sprain.) It has been that way after Game 2 of each of Boston’s two playoff series.

We expect Tatum’s Celtics to win, because they’re awesome. That’s it. They’re not unbeatable. They’re awesome. But we can’t accept that. You can’t just be awesome. You can’t be among the best players and among the best teams, both with a shot to win every season; you have to be the best. You have to win.

Except, we put them in a no-win situation. Win, and you were supposed to. Lose, and we told you so. Total 66 points, 24 rebounds and 11 assists in two dominating all-around efforts for a pair of bounce-back road wins over the Cavs in a span of three days, and That’s the Tatum we should be seeing all the time.

I think that’s what Tatum was getting at when he gave us a rare window into his thinking the other night.

“That’s the narrative that you might see on TV, the idea that we have a superteam,” said Tatum. “It’s two-fold, right? We didn’t have the Coach of the Year. We didn’t have the MVP. We only had two All-Stars. So, they say we’re a superteam, but we didn’t get rewarded like we are. But we know we’ve got a good team. We’re not perfect. We play the right way more often than not, and we know we’ve got to be better.”

Is that not a healthy mindset? At least he’s grounded in reality.

What other reason did Joe Mazzulla finish fourth for Coach of the Year than everyone believing Boston’s 64 wins should lap the field? The Celtics boasted the same number of All-Stars as the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, all of whom lost in the first round. Boston is a great team, but it can’t just be that. When you’re great, you better win, or you’re a loser. That’s how this works.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 11: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics looks on before Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on May 11, 2024 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Jayson Tatum’s Celtics are held to impossibly high standards. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

What were they saying about Derrick White when he first arrived in Boston? How did they feel about swapping Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porziņģis? Why didn’t they think Jaylen Brown deserved a max contract? Who was willing to pay what the Celtics did for 33-year-old Jrue Holiday? When has anyone considered Al Horford elite? Forgive Tatum for thinking he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

After all, Tatum doesn’t get any credit for sacrificing in the presence of his talented teammates, either. Do too much, lose, get criticized. Play within the team, win a ton of games, get criticized. Rinse, repeat.

Tatum placed sixth in MVP voting, and we believe he belongs there in any discussion of the NBA’s best. But we hold him to the standard we set for the game’s greatest. Because we’ve seen him get there. He dropped 50 points in a playoff victory over Kevin Durant’s loaded Brooklyn Nets in 2021. He netted 46 in a must-win Game 6 opposite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in 2022. He dropped another 50 against reigning MVP Joel Embiid in last year’s Game 7 vs. the Philadelphia 76ers.

If he were to do that every night, he’d be the greatest of all time. But he’s not. He’s one of the NBA’s best, not its absolute best. Sometimes he loses. Sometimes he’s not good enough. In other words: He’s human.

And isn’t that what we should want from our superstars? What’s the fun in being immortal?

When the Dallas Mavericks won their championship in 2011, we appreciated it more because of what Dirk Nowitzki had been through by age 32 — a decade’s worth of 50-win seasons that fell short of his goal. He was never considered the game’s best player, even when he won his MVP, but he was for one playoff run, defeating Bryant’s Lakers, Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron James’ Heat en route to his ring.

We don’t know these things until they happen, so can we really appreciate it? Not as much as Nowitzki.

This is Tatum’s age-25 season, same as when LeBron left Cleveland for Miami. He is one win from making his fifth appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. He has won 59 playoff games — four times as many as Jordan had at the same point of his career. And in this world, none of it means anything without a ring.

Durant is the alternative. We killed him for joining the 73-win Golden State Warriors. He ran from the Thunder, so his two titles and back-to-back Finals MVPs hold less value to us — and maybe also to him as a result. We don’t want our superstars to run from the grind, but we hold the grind against them, too.

Heck, we weren’t willing to give Stephen Curry his full respect until he won a Finals MVP on his sixth trip to the Finals (opposite Tatum). We always found some reason to diminish him until he was undeniable.

We are falling prey to this with Anthony Edwards already. He is 22 years old, drawing comparisons to Jordan. When his Minnesota Timberwolves took a 2-0 series lead against the defending champion Denver Nuggets, we scripted takes around how high he would climb — and how far Nikola Jokić would fall — in our pantheon once his team won the title, only for the narrative to flip completely in a weekend’s time.

If athletes weighed their legacies every step of their careers, as we do, there’d be no joy in this game. They can succumb to it, and when they do, we’ll be there to hammer them for it. Put pressure on them and blame them for not carrying it. Until they do, and we try to share that, too. I knew he could do it.

No you didn’t. We’ve spent 20 years debating every step of LeBron’s career, blasting him each time he loses when he shouldn’t have and wins when he should have. And that’s LeBron James. What hope does anyone else have of avoiding this pitfall? Players might as well enjoy the ride, because we certainly don’t.

Deep down, we understand this, even as we criticize Tatum for expressing it. Keep it to yourself, so we can craft the facade of a killer’s instinct. For if Tatum wins with the Celtics, we might have to look within.

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