Tatum's strength is Luka's weakness, and it's deciding the NBA Finals

Tatum’s strength is Luka’s weakness, and it’s deciding the NBA Finals originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Jayson Tatum’s critics have one peculiar hang-up: They’re angry he isn’t someone else.

Why isn’t he as passionate as Jaylen Brown? Why isn’t he as fiery as Anthony Edwards? Why isn’t he as ruthless as Kobe Bryant?

But if the NBA Finals have proven anything, it’s that maybe we should start celebrating Tatum for who he is: a chill, no-drama superstar in the mold of Tim Duncan, Joe Montana, and Derek Jeter who has the Celtics on the verge of Banner 18.

The Finals have presented the perfect showcase for Tatum’s strength of personality by offering a careful-what-you-wish-for foil. Entering this series, Luka Doncic was universally hailed as the best player on the floor, the cornerstone you’d want to start a franchise with, the pick to win an MVP. Few would argue. The 2024 scoring champ is a breathtaking talent who bends the pace of the game to his will as the most uniquely unstoppable offensive force in basketball.

He’s also prone to fits of mercurial pique and moody instability that cost his team at the worst moments. Put less charitably, he can be a spoiled brat.

Doncic’s tantrums were on full display in Wednesday’s Game 3. He came out blazing as Dallas opened a 13-point lead in the first quarter. Then he went cold, started whining at the refs, and the Celtics made their inevitable comeback.

Twice, Doncic stayed on the floor after not getting calls while the Celtics scored on the odd-man rush. Then in the fourth quarter, after Dallas whittled a 21-point deficit to one, Doncic foolishly upended Jaylen Brown twice, earning his fifth and sixth fouls and an automatic disqualification. After the latter, he petulantly screamed at his bench to bleeping challenge it, like a toddler in a sandbox.

The Mavericks disputed both whistles, but the first resembled a Greco-Roman takedown, and the second withstood review. Both fouls were completely unnecessary, born from the fact that the Celtics have tortured Doncic all series on defense, where he grades as a broken turnstile.

He didn’t do himself any favors postgame, forsaking personal responsibility in favor of ref-bashing. “We couldn’t play physical,” Doncic moaned. “I don’t know. I don’t want to say nothing. Six fouls in the NBA Finals. … C’mon, man. (Be) better than that.”

Contrast that with Tatum. Other than some ref lobbying – which he has dialed back considerably in the Finals – Tatum is unflappable. His persona at the podium, where he never loses his cool, raises his voice, or bullies a questioner, translates to the floor.

And yet, many wish Tatum would be a “killer” like Doncic, conveniently ignoring that Tatum boasts the better postseason resume, by a lot.

Luka swears at opposing fans, trash talks defenders, and frequently plays with a sneer. He exudes schoolyard bully vibes. Meanwhile, outside of bellowing “AND OOOOOONNNNNEEEE!!!!!” and chest-bumping teammates, Tatum rarely has a word for anyone. It’s why labeling his post-shot celebration “The Kiss of Death” always felt off.

Tatum isn’t looking to kill anyone; the ritual started as a signal to his son, Deuce. It better suits Tatum’s personality to call it, “The Goodnight Kiss,” imagery that’s less violent, but no less final.

Because make no mistake, Tatum plays legitimate bully-ball. It was hard to miss the juxtaposition down the stretch of Doncic flopping for his sixth foul and Tatum attacking an errant entry pass before throwing down a dunk on three defenders to end the comeback. His disposition may not be demonstrative, but when Tatum squares up those broad shoulders, there’s nothing remotely soft about his game.

So as the Celtics look to close out the series on Friday night, let us take a moment to appreciate Tatum for what he is, which is easygoing, humble, and true to himself. After all these years, maybe we can finally recognize his understated personality as a strength, not a weakness in need of a transplant.

The no-nonsense Celtics follow his lead, and that road is pointing towards history.

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