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Is Game 3 the night Jayson Tatum breaks out of his shooting slump in NBA Finals?

Porzingis is "Celtics cheat code" Leon Powe says after injury announcement
Porzingis is "Celtics cheat code" Leon Powe says after injury announcement 00:52

BOSTON -- Jayson Tatum has received a lot of praise during the NBA Finals for his all-around game leading the Celtics to a 2-0 series lead over the Dallas Mavericks. The only thing Tatum isn't doing well in the Finals is what he's best known for: Putting up points.

Tatum was kept in the teens in both Games 1 and 2 against Dallas, after averaging 30.1 points per game in Boston's Eastern Conference Finals sweep of the Indiana Pacers. Tatum still leads Celtics scorers this postseason at 24.6 points per game, but he's hitting just 42.6 percent from the floor and 28.9 percent from downtown in the playoffs.

Those shooting struggles have gotten worse in the Finals, with Tatum's overall percentage falling to 31.6 percent. He's hit just four of his 14 threes against the Mavericks.

A lot of that has to do with Dallas' Tatum-centric defense, as he's been hounded with double- and occasional triple-teams when he attacks the rim. And he's been excellent in every other aspect of the game, leading the Celtics with 10.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He dished out 12 assists in Boston's Game 2 victory, one shy of his postseason record, as he made the Mavericks pay for all that extra attention they're giving him on defense.

Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla believes this version of Tatum is the best version -- or close to it.

"I think because of the type of player that he is, it's always going to look different because of his versatility," Mazzulla said Tuesday. "I think he's only going to get better. He makes greatness look easy because of his ability to impact the game in many different ways. He's going to continue to get better and better and better. It's an honor to coach him."

The Celtics haven't needed Tatum to score thanks to a balanced offensive attack that has five players averaging double digits, but no players averaging more than 21.5 points per game. Jaylen Brown is leading the way at 21.5 points off 55 percent shooting over the first two games in the NBA Finals. Jrue Holiday benefitted the most from Tatum's passing in Game 2, scoring a team-high 26 points off 11-for-14 shooting, after putting up 12 points in Game 1. Most of his buckets were easy layups after Tatum found him cutting to the hoop. Derrick White (16.5 points per game) is also benefiting from Dallas blanketing Tatum, and the Celtics received a huge boost from Kristaps Porzingis (22 points in Game 1) coming off the bench.

But Porzingis' status is in doubt after he suffered a rare tendon injury in Game 2. So the Celtics are likely going to need Tatum to start scoring at some point, and start scoring efficiently.

Tatum's three-point shot has been off for a month now, but he's also having some serious issues around the basket in the NBA Finals. He's been great when driving and dishing, but not driving and finishing. He was just 5-for-15 around the basket in Game 2.

It's certainly possible that Tatum can continue to have his all-around impact while still getting his points. He still led Boston in shot attempts in Game 2 with 22, so a few more makes (especially around the basket) would have made his near triple-double (18 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds) even better.

How can he shake this shooting slump? Even though it's a series he'd probably like to forget, Tatum is drawing off his experience from the NBA Finals two years ago. Tatum shot just 36.7 percent against the Golden State Warriors and led that series in turnovers, as the Celtics fell in six games. 

That defeat and those struggles humbled Tatum, but that experience was also invaluable. He knows that one big game could change everything for his offensive attack.

"I understand that it could take one game," Tatum said Tuesday in Dallas. "One game, I could explode. All the percentages and things like that could change. So it's just that mindset of, I'm one game away or whatever that means. 

"Like I said the other day, I know what it's like to be in this position and lose. This time around, I'm trying to do any and everything possible to have a different outcome," he said. "I know I need to shoot the ball better. And I plan on it. Not letting that affect everything else that I need to do on the court to help us win."

That's a delicate balance for Tatum. But as long as he doesn't force bad shots, as he did two years ago against Golden State, it shouldn't mess up the flow his teammates are currently enjoying.

Shots should start to fall for Tatum, but even if they don't, the loaded Celtics have shown that they can win without their leading scorer dropping 30 points every night. And if the Boston defense continues to shut down anyone not named Luka Doncic, the Celtics may not need Tatum to be his usual self on offense for Boston to win a title. 

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