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How Jayson Tatum handles double teams

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As Tatum heats up, opponents will bring double teams more frequently.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Jayson Tatum is turning into the Boston Celtics’ top scoring option.

Since January 11th, Tatum is averaging 28.8 points, shooting 46.4 percent from 3-point range and dishing out 3.2 assists per game. His scoring is eighth in the league in that time, ahead of such young guns as Luka Doncic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and Zion Williamson.

As his output increases, opposing coaches are forced to specifically against Tatum with gimmicky coverages and varying tactics designed to cool him down. In less convoluted terms: Tatum is becoming a Problem with a capital “P” and is going to be double teamed. Frequently.

On Wednesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers started to trap Tatum on ball screens and the third-year pro was ready for the challenge. Tatum sees the floor well and is a good enough ball handler to fend off pitbull-like defenders aggressively knifing in. More than anything, Tatum’s feel has improved so much over the last year that he looks unfazed by pressure–he’s embraced being comfortable when things are uncomfortable.

The key to beating a trap is being prepared for when it will happen and knowing where to go with the ball. The youth basketball teaching point seems simple, but keeping eyes up while the trap occurs is crucial to handling the pressure. Too many times eyes can wander laterally as players try to dribble around the trap or aren’t even up in the first place.

Tatum uses his vision by inviting the trap, looking up as soon as it comes, and trusting his teammates:

The play above is a prime example of how defenses rotate while they trap. Two players bracket the ball in the middle of the floor; the rest of the team is guarding 3-on-4. Defensive principles dictate protecting the basket above all, so all three defenders naturally slink to the lane.

Tatum makes the quick play here by dumping the ball over the top to Daniel Theis, his screener. Theis catches on what’s known as a short roll, and is then the decision maker at the free throw line to play 4-on-3. He makes the right play here by going for a layup when Collin Sexton gambles and misses for a steal.

Most teams will live with playing 4-on-3 at times because it means the primary threat (Tatum in this instance) isn’t the one beating them. Screening bigs aren’t known for their exemplary decision-making away from the hoop, especially role players like Theis. In theory, the coverage forces the Celtics to rely on a creator less stellar than Tatum.

But Tatum is too quick at recognizing when he’s going to be blitzed. He’ll dink the ball over the top of the trap before the rest of the defense can sink into the lane, giving Theis an easy job to just lay the ball in:

If only it were that easy every time.

Good players sense the traps when they’re coming, but they cannot always hit the short roll. Strong defenses will take away that option and force Tatum to throw a skip pass, which has a higher probability of being picked off or thrown away.

Often times, It’s difficult to read the back-line of the defense while two elite-caliber athletes–one of whom is usually 6’8” or taller–are bum-rushing you. But Tatum remains unflappable in these circumstances and can still play a cat-and-mouse game with help defenders.

He’s made some brilliant skip passes while anticipating when the corner defender will get too antsy and go for a pick-6:

The results of those plays hammer home the importance of Tatum’s teammates when he’s getting blitzed. The four other Celtics must provide great spacing so that no one defender can guard two at a time. They must be ready to make the right play as soon as they catch it, so they can attack a scrambling opponent.

Brad Stevens seems to coach his guys to make an extra pass off the catch. Note how the ball is never driven and doesn’t hit the floor from the first guy on the perimeter to touch it after the trap. By keeping the ball moving, they force even more closeouts and mismatches from the defense:

This concept is often known as the “relay man,” akin to a baseball player who serves as the cutoff and determines whether to throw home for a play at the plate or catch another overzealous baserunner. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are heady players and understand they likely aren’t going to be open for a shot. If the move the ball quickly, they’ll find someone who is though.

Tatum has only been trapped on 19 pick-and-rolls this year, according to Synergy Sports Tech’s player tracking data. That’s about 1.3 percent of his total ball screen usage. His hot surge should change those numbers. Teams cannot afford to play him one-on-one much longer.

Both the Celtics and Tatum will be ready. No matter what the coverage on Tatum is, it won’t stop their overall attack. Opponents are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.