Monday, April 15, 2024

Jason Tatum’s Tough Night: Celtics’ Star Struggles in Clutch, Nuggets Claim Victory

HomeSports NewsJason Tatum's Tough Night: Celtics' Star Struggles in Clutch, Nuggets Claim Victory

DENVER – In a potential preview of the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets put on a show Thursday night at Ball Arena. However, the Mile High City proved to be too high of a mountain for the Celtics to climb as Jayson Tatum’s late-game heroics fell short in a 115-109 loss.

For the second time this week, the All-Star forward had a chance to lift his team to victory in the waning moments. But similar to Tuesday’s heartbreaking collapse against Cleveland, Tatum’s wide-open corner three rimmed out with 45 seconds left, leaving the Celtics trailing 112-109.

“That corner three, it was a good shot. I thought it was going in,” a dejected Tatum said after the game. “We had some opportunities.”

Opportunities certainly presented themselves for Boston, who built a 22-point lead early on behind a barrage of three-pointers and tenacious defense. However, the Nuggets battled back behind the brilliance of Nikola Jokic, who recorded his 29th triple-double of the season with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists.

After Tatum’s miss from deep, the Serbian center put the game on ice with a perfectly executed lob to Aaron Gordon for an easy dunk, capping off Denver’s comeback and delivering the final dagger.

“He’s the center that I’ve always dreamed of playing with,” Gordon gushed about Jokic. “He’s someone that sees the floor, someone that is super unselfish. And I think he likes just the fact that he can just throw it anywhere and I’ll go get it.”

While Jokic stole the show, Boston had only themselves to blame for letting the game slip away. Sloppy play and careless turnovers allowed Denver to slowly claw their way back, as the Nuggets scored 16 points off Celtic miscues.

Just too many mistakes,” admitted Jaylen Brown, who scored a game-high 41 points. “Against a good team, we gotta take advantage. Turnovers, free throws, just missing the defensive assignments, all of that stuff, we gotta be better at.”

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Brown was sensational, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals to his prolific scoring output over 41 grueling minutes. However, his heroic performance was overshadowed by Tatum’s uninspiring 15 point, 5-13 shooting night – well below his season averages of 30.5 points on 47% shooting.

“I think with the dynamic of our team, when other guys kind of got it going in a rhythm, in a flow…you got to space the floor,” Tatum offered regarding his subdued play. “If that calls for being in the corner or passing them the ball, that’s what we’re trying to do on that possession.”

Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla echoed his star’s comments, commending Brown’s aggression while rationalizing Tatum’s off-night as an intentional move to create driving lanes. However, the first-year head coach intimated that more was expected out of his franchise cornerstone.

“We expect a lot out of Jayson and he expects a lot out of himself,” Mazzulla stated. “Tonight it just didn’t go his way in terms of his scoring output and forcing some turnovers. But he still had a solid floor game overall managing the team.”

Regardless of Tatum’s struggles, the Celtics had their chances late thanks in large part to Kristaps Porzingis. The former All-Star center gave Jokic all he could handle down low, scoring 24 points while pulling down 12 boards. His physicality flustered the MVP frontrunner at times, leaving Porzingis optimistic about potential rematches.

“He was definitely in his bag tonight,” Porzingis acknowledged. “He’s just an incredible basketball player. Some things I learned from him today, actually. He’s so smart, so crafty, so many things that you don’t see that he does on the floor that helps that team win. It’s incredible.”

These two juggernauts could certainly be headed for an inevitable collision course in the NBA Finals based on their performances this season. At 48-22, Boston owns the league’s second-best record behind only the Milwaukee Bucks. The battle-tested defending champions sit third at 43-20.

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With terrific two-way talent and an unshakeable identity forged in last year’s Finals run, the Celtics remain a formidable force. However, the Nuggets possess the most unique and unstoppable weapon of all in Jokic. His combination of skill, size, strength, and incredibly high basketball IQ make him a nightly matchup nightmare, as evidenced by his two huge performances against Boston this season.

“You have to give the Celtics fans some credit,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone quipped postgame. “They always come out strong. But you know what we say, right? They can take that L on the way out, baby.”

Malone’s boastful remark may have rankled some Beantown faithful in attendance, but his confidence is well-earned. His squad proved their championship-caliber by taking down one of the NBA’s elite in an electric playoff-like atmosphere.

For Boston, the loss marked their second straight after a tough defeat at Cleveland earlier in the week. Their two-game skid followed a blistering 109-96 triumph over the Bucks where Tatum, Brown, and company displayed their full offensive arsenal with crisp ball movement and prolific long-range shooting.

Defense also remains a calling card, as they rank second in defensive rating behind only Jokic’s Nuggets. So while setbacks against Cleveland and Denver provide humbling lessons, the lumps taken these past few days arevaluable building blocks for the Celtics’ postseason journey.

With a meeting in the 2022-23 Finals increasingly plausible, games like Thursday provide a measuring stick for these heavyweights. If that long-awaited matchup comes to fruition, Boston now knows what it must correct to dethrone Denver’s juggernaut – sharper execution, better care for the basketball, and of course solving the Jokic puzzle that has bedeviled them twice.

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For Tatum, the loss provides further mental fortification should these teams’ paths cross again in two months. His late-game heroics have fallen short over the past week, from missing the potential game-winner against Cleveland to that wide-open look that cruelly rimmed out in Denver.

However, the 25-year-old has proven himself as one of the game’s most clutch performers this season. Tatum’s 38-point masterpiece to beat LeBron James and the Lakers in late February went viral, with his epic faceoff against “The King” leaving many anointing him the new face of the NBA.

So while setbacks are disheartening in the moment, they are illuminating experiences for future high-stakes scenarios. Tatum and the Celtics won’t dwell on Thursday’s disappointment for long, thanks to their championship determination and relentless pursuit of banner 18.

In a delirious sport obsessed with crowning dynasties and superteams, the two most formidable forces in the NBA reside in Boston and Denver. Their clash in the Mile High City was just an appetizer for a potential epic Finals clash sure to captivate global audiences.

For neutrals, the tantalizing prospect of Tatum vs. Jokic on the grandest stage is enough to set pulses racing. For the Nuggets and their brash coach, last night was about exercising demons, protecting home court from a legitimate threat to their throne.

As for Tatum and the Celtics? The lingering sting of missed opportunities will motivate them through the remaining grind of an 82-game marathon. When the bright lights shine brightest, they’ll draw strength from these humbling lessons learned in the regular season.

Boston has unfinished business to settle in the Mile High City. Redemption and an 18th championship banner are the only acceptable outcomes. Buckle up and savor what promises to be an epic encore between the NBA’s premier powers.

Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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