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How Jayson Tatum got his groove back

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The Celtics’ second-year star broke out of his slump in a big way on Wednesday against the Pacers.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics scored one of their most impressive victories of the season on Wednesday night, absolutely dominating the Indiana Pacers (formerly winners of seven of their last eight games) by a whopping 27 points. It was the kind of win that generates a nearly endless list of positives — Marcus Morris providing an exceptionally efficient 22 points, Jaylen Brown calmly pouring in 22 of his own while playing the most minutes on the team, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford essentially having a night off — but tonight, one storyline stood out the most: Jayson Tatum was the best player on the floor while the game remained competitive.

See, while we’ve all (rightfully) focused quite a bit on Brown’s and Gordon Hayward’s respective resurgences in recent weeks, Tatum has quietly fallen into a little slump of his own at the same time. Since the Celtics’ win over Philadelphia, in which Tatum scored 23 points on 18 shots, Tatum had failed to break 20 points in a game before Wednesday. In those six games, his best performance from the field was 50% on just six shot attempts against Memphis, a fairly uninvolved performance where he attempted just two shots after the first quarter. If you set that game aside, next-best fell to just 43% (including 0-of-5 three-point shooting) in the wild loss to San Antonio. His low point? Eight points on 3-of-11 shooting against Minnesota.

In other words, Tatum was very much in need of a breakthrough performance, and against Indiana and their top-5 defense, it was evident from the get-go that a breakthrough was exactly what we were going to see. He raced out of the gate with nine points in the first 2:30 of the game, and finished with 20 (9-of-15 shooting) in just 25 minutes of play, before the blowout no longer required his services.

So, as you already know I’m going to ask: what was different?

The first major stand-out was that Tatum executed extremely well with the ball out of his hands. It felt as though he was playing much more contained within the Celtics’ offense than he has in recent weeks. There was a little more willingness to let the shots come to him, rather than creating shots himself. He played off screens a little bit better, and exploited defensive weaknesses with quick-twitch decisiveness.

This is an element that can disappear from Tatum when he’s struggling. At times, it feels like he can press for his scoring to come in a way that is entirely independent from what the Celtics’ offense wants to accomplish. When he gets this kind of tunnel-vision, it limits him quite a bit, because he does some of his best work without the ball in his hands at all. For instance, with his finishing ability, he can be a be a devastating cutter, especially when paired with Horford’s prodigious passing ability.

The Horford connection can also buy Tatum three-pointers. This very simple fake hand-off set between the two is something the Celtics have deployed on a few occasions, and it’s one of my favorites for how devastating it is in its simplicity. Over-commit to the shooting threat, and Tatum can take the handoff and barrel his way to the rim with ease. Worry too much about the drive (as Indiana does here), and Tatum can cut back for an open corner triple. Though he missed the shot in this instance, this is a look that you’ll live with 10 times out of 10.

Of course, that’s not to say that Tatum should never see opportunities to create for himself as a scorer. While he roasted Indiana off the ball tonight, his off-the-dribble game did not simply cease to exist. He’s preternaturally gifted at creating space from a defender with the ball in his hands, and as it often does, it showed tonight. The dribble-sidestep three-pointer has become one of my favorite such moves this season.

This ability also fits into the Celtics’ offense quite snugly, as a little bit of ball movement can easily create an advantage for Tatum over his man. With his craftiness off the dribble, he can create a whole lot of open looks just swinging around screens, which is something he employed to great effect against the Pacers.

This also leads us into something that remains in urgent need of improvement: Tatum still relies far too much on long, off-balance two-point jumpers. In the wake of the infamous Kobe workouts from this past summer, Tatum caught some flak for relying too heavily on long twos, but he subsequently quieted that concern over the next few weeks of play. Well, recently, he’s regressed; these shots have resurfaced in recent weeks, and were evident tonight at times, as well.

This is a bad shot, but the issue of his pull-up twos is actually a more delicate balancing act than you might think. Frankly, not all of them are actually that bad. Tatum is a true three-level scorer who divines his value from the sheer versatility of how he can drop buckets on you, and as I mentioned, one of his most valuable attributes is his ability to create space from his defender with the ball in his hands. When he does this successfully, in the flow of the offense, it creates great shots, as we’ve seen. The problem is that he likes bad ones just a little too much.

When he takes bad ones, they sure do look bad when they miss — and they look extra bad when he attempts them despite bobbling dribble moves while backing down his man. This has happened a few times during his slump, and sure enough, it reared its ugly head again tonight on his very first attempt — he just happened to make it this time.

Overall, though, even with the long-two bugaboo rearing its head a little bit, this was overall an exceptionally diverse scoring performance from Jayson Tatum. And that’s what makes Tatum unique on this Boston roster — he’s arguably the scorer who benefits most from sheer diversity. Kyrie Irving can manufacture a great game just by dribbling around and chucking an array of fadeaway jumpers, Marcus Morris has (perhaps improbably) morphed into a dominant threes-and-layups archetype of player, Jaylen Brown is at his best when aggressively attacking the basket — only Tatum is at his most comfortable when he’s doing a little bit of everything. Against the Pacers, that’s exactly what he provided.