How will Jayson Tatum respond in must-have Game 4 for Celtics?

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Forsberg: How Jayson Tatum can make Game 4 a defining moment originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

MILWAUKEE -- One series after Jayson Tatum and his Celtics teammates repeatedly hounded Kevin Durant into improbably poor shooting performances, the Bucks are giving Boston a taste of its own medicine.

Tatum turned in the worst playoff performance of his career in Saturday's Game 3 loss. Utilizing Basketball Reference's catch-all Game Score metric, there was actually one worse -- ironically, against the Bucks in 2019 -- but Tatum would almost certainly not argue the suggestion that Saturday was his most maddening clunker, especially given his growth the past three years.

Jayson Tatum was historically bad (by his standards) in Saturday's Game 3 loss.

The question is, how does Tatum respond? Especially given the magnitude of the game, and given that Boston desperately needs to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole and has to steal a game on the road at some point if it wants to outlast the defending champs.

The Bucks have deployed Wes Matthews with instructions to make Tatum’s life miserable. In a series defined so far by its physicality, Matthews has attached himself to Tatum’s hip and made him work for even the tiniest bit of space. In Saturday's Game 3, Matthews held Tatum scoreless over 10 total minutes of matchup time. Tatum was 0-for-9 with Matthews as the primary defender, did not draw a foul, and turned the ball over once.

Tatum certainly missed some shots that he typically makes. But Matthews did a good job of making him work, the same way the Celtics seemed to fluster Durant throughout Round 1. For the series, Tatum has just 17 points on 5-of-15 shooting in 25 minutes of matchup time with Matthews.

Tatum suggested he was overthinking things after Game 3. It showed on his drives when he refused to use available space to pull up in the midrange and too often got conflicted in the teeth of Milwaukee’s back line defense. Tatum had opportunities to both finish and create near the rim but made poor decisions on when to defer and wasn’t aggressive enough trying to draw fouls.

Some of that might be a byproduct of a sore left wrist that he’s been perpetually massaging for the better part of two months now. Tatum noted how he originally hurt it during a regular-season spill, but only summer downtime will allow it to heal.

Tatum downplays wrist injury after scary moment in Game 3

Downtime isn't on the menu at the moment, at least if the Celtics want to keep their season alive. The Celtics and Bucks will play every other day now until the finish line of a series that has always felt like it was going the distance.

The narrative around Tatum this season has been his ascension to one of the league’s elite. If he’s not one of the top five players in the NBA now, he’s in the lobby waiting for them to let him in the room. But tilts like Game 4 can go a long way towards defining how we view superstars.

Tatum has a chance to truly show he’s elite if he’s able to brush off Sunday’s struggles and help the Celtics tie this series.

Boston has already seen one of it superstars do that when Jaylen Brown bounced back from a poor Game 1 against the Bucks and erupted for 25 first-half points in Boston’s lopsided Game 2 win. Brown showed up at the arena three hours early, got locked in, and then dominated with a near-perfect first half.

Tatum doesn’t need to change his routine. But he does need to be smarter on the floor in Monday’s Game 4.

He needs to value the ball more and he has to attack with a purpose. For much of the season, Tatum has found ways to impact the game even when his shot has defied him. That didn’t happen Saturday. Tatum sulked on the court, failed to get back on defense in a key spot leading to a transition three from the Bucks, and barely dented his box score heading into the fourth quarter (only one rebound and one assist to that point).

Tatum also needs to be aggressive in transition and not allow Milwaukee to get its defense set and clog up the floor. He understands the challenge in front of him.

"Obviously, I expect to play better,” he said after Game 3. "And just come in ready on Monday trying to get a win. I’m not going to make it about me or anything like that. I’ve gotta be better. I know that. My teammates know that. And I’m sure I will be. And we’ll make some adjustments and just be a little bit better on Monday.”

Game 4 has the chance to be a defining moment for Tatum.