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Despite early season struggles, Jayson Tatum shows why he’s Celtics’ number two in win over Raptors

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In Jayson Tatum, the Celtics finally have a clear-cut number two option.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving was incredible on Friday night. In 39 minutes, the Celtics point guard dropped 43 points while shooting an efficient 18-for-26 from the floor and 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. He was a huge reason--if not THE reason--why Boston was able to pull out a 123-116 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors.

It was the kind of offensive performance we’ve come to expect out of Irving as he’s grown as a player, and stretches like the one he’s currently on--30 points per game in his last five--are part of what makes him so special. It would be unrealistic to expect him to do this every night, though, which is why it was so refreshing to see Jayson Tatum score 21 points in support of his fellow Duke Blue Devil.

The Celtics have struggled to determine a clear hierarchy on the offensive end to this point of the season, which, in addition to poor shot selection and flat out bad shooting, has been a big issue. With both Irving and Gordon Hayward back in the fold, Boston’s younger players who grew accustomed to being primary options on offense last year have been hesitant to exert themselves, and, at times, there has been a sense of your-turn-my-turn between them.

As Hayward rounds into form, the Celtics have needed Tatum to be their second fiddle; someone who can consistently threaten to score 20 points per game and lighten Irving’s load. After struggling to begin the season, Tatum has been right around that mark in his last five games, scoring 17.4 points per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point land. Those percentages likely aren’t sustainable for the entire season, but they are more on par with what he did last year than the 42.2 percent and 40.6 percent (still very good) he’s shot this year.

Recently the biggest difference for Tatum has been his shot selection. Early this season he was often settling for contested mid-range jumpers and allowed himself to be run off the three-point line and forced into inefficient pull ups.

It seems like Tatum is starting to figure it out, though. For the season, he’s taken just over a quarter of his shots from the mid-range, which is far too high a portion for anyone’s liking. But over the last five games that number has shrunk to 16.7 percent, with threes and shots at the rim accounting for 83.3 percent of his shot attempts, according to NBA Stats.

The result has been a 55.3 effective field goal percentage—six percentage points higher than his season-long figure of 49.2 percent—and just more offensive production overall. Even when Hayward is back to full health, the Celtics could very well still look to Tatum as the second option and he showed he is more than capable of filling that role against the Raptors.

Guys like Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and even Marcus Morris Sr. should fill in the gaps behind Irving and Tatum from here on out, which isn’t to say the Celtics shouldn’t feed the hot hand when they’ve got it. But Tatum deserves to be featured as long as he’s taking the right shots and producing at a high level. Boston’s offense will be better for it.