After a rough end to the All Star break, the Celtics began the second part of the season in Detroit at the brand new Little Caesars Arena. It wasn’t a must-win game, but it felt like a game the Celtics absolutely needed to have to re-stabilize a season that could unexpectedly fall apart the same way it came together.
With about 10:42 left in the first, Jaylen Brown raced down the right side of the court and looked up to see Jayson Tatum posting up the smaller but stronger Reggie Bullock. Brown took a second to get the spacing right then bounced over an entry pass to Tatum. Without hesitation, Tatum took two hard dribbles, did a quick fake spin to the baseline which froze Bullock in his tracks and by the time he recovered, Tatum had put up a fade away jumper. Bullock was helpless as he watched the ball sail through the hoop.
The discussion around Tatum has been mixed. He came into the year as a better than advertised shooter and defender who still had that same ability to break down defenders in one v. one situations. During the Celtics 16-game win streak, he only scored in single digits twice while averaging 13.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg while shooting 49% from three.
His ability to space the floor and defend at a high-level with the combination of a hobbled Marcus Morris and Gordon Hayward gave him the minutes and the chance to gain confidence in a year where many thought getting anything more than 20 mpg would be a stretch for the then 19-year-old. The game came easier for him than any of the recent draft picks Ainge had made, and as the expectations rose, so did the cries for more opportunities.
The road wasn’t always a steady progrssion. In a game against the heat on 12/20, Tatum dislocated his finger in the first half. Tatum shrugged it off and his next three games looked fantastic including a Christmas Day game where he dropped 20 points and only missed two shots from the field. Then he hit a bit a snag from the end of December till January. During that time, he still managed to be the team’s third highest scorer, but he went from the efficient floor-spacer to 42.2% shooting from the field and 30% from three while moving up his attempts from a shade above 9 to 11.1 FGA.
Some have pinpointed the dislocated finger, the schedule, and the proverbial rookie wall as playing a part in his inconsistency. The biggest difference in his game seemed to be his shot selection. Tatum’s stellar play earned him more freedom on offense, but instead of it producing more threes and drives to the lane it instead turned into an uptick in mid-range and long two jumpers. This was seen in his dip from free throw attempts which went from 4.2 in the month of December to 1.3 in the month of January. That lack of aggression to attack the hoop could have been any of the above factors and it has all been argued, but a second-look at the numbers during his month in January introduces another factor.
During that month, the team as a whole started to regress from its hot start and therefore Tatum’s production seemed to regress more than it actually did. For example, the Celtics played 12 games in the month of January. n three of those games Tatum only scored 4 points. However, if you take those games out his averages for January his averages would have been 14.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg on 45.6 FG% and 41 3P% while taking 12.6 FGA. That’s actually right on line with his efficiency from the beginning of the year while taking on more of scoring load.
However, with the Celtics going on a stretch where they lost five out of six games along with Tatum scoring single digits in three of those appearances, it was easy to overemphasize his poor play. The truth is, Tatum really never regressed that much, we just started expecting more than he could deliver when the team needed it.
It’s the second quarter against the Pelicans and New Orleans is looking to continue attacking the early deficit they put themselves in. Cheick Diallo tries to float a pass that is tipped by Tatum and controlled by Larkin. After taking a couple of dribbles, Larkin throws it up to Tatum on the right wing who initially had a step on Nikola Mirotic before Jrue Holiday switches on him and meets him at the three-point line. Tatum gets low in his stance and starts dribbling left to right, behind his back, and under his legs in a way reminiscent of his teammate Kyrie Irving. Tatum inches inside the arc and shifts his body like he’s heading to hoop before crossing back over to his left in a move that shook Holiday out of his shoes. By the time he Holiday goes up to defend the jumper it’s already halfway through the net.
Since the All Star break, Tatum has averaged 13.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg on 46.1 FG% , 42.4 3P%, and he’s 3rd on the team in attempts that are within in 5 ft where he shoots 61%. The big jump? Well, there isn’t one. Tatum has gotten more comfortable in scoring in non-spot up situations and has gotten back to limiting his mid-range attempts and opting for more drives to the hoop. But the beauty in Tatum’s season hasn’t been the explosive leaps or the hot stretches, but rather the consistent streak of solid production on both ends every night. It’s not always flashy, but its always effective, and at 20-years-old, you really couldn’t ask for more.