This year has been something of a coming out party for Jayson Tatum. After a somewhat up-and-down first couple of seasons in Boston, Tatum has taken a clear leap into stardom in 2020, earning his first All-Star appearance and delivering huge performances on the national stage.
On offense, Jayson has always had an extremely skilled game, but this year he’s at a completely different level – attacking the basket with more vigor and control while becoming a high-volume three-point scorer and even developing a signature shot. He’s made a living this year facing the basket, using his athleticism and skill to go after defenders on the perimeter.
But on Sunday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Tatum went with his back to the basket in the post more than he had all season – even on the potential game-winner at the end of Sunday’s contest, where he missed a fade away over Chris Paul.
On the year, Tatum averages just around 1.3 post-ups per game, but against OKC on Sunday, he had already reached four before the end of the first quarter. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missing his first game of the season due to a hip injury, the Thunder slotted the 6-6, 190-pound Terrance Ferguson into the starting lineup, and he was also given the inglorious initial assignment of having to cover Tatum.
Listed at 6-8 and 204 pounds, Tatum had a clear size advantage over Ferguson, and it seemed like a conscious decision to try and force feed Jayson with the smaller Ferguson pinned to his hip.
This is just a case of Tatum simply being too big for the Thunder wing.
Brad Stevens also looked to get Tatum the ball around the elbow with either Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo stuck behind him, giving Tatum the requisite time and space to maneuver his way around the defender. In the clip below, Tatum does a great job of sizing up Ferguson before executing a beautiful spin move and finish.
On the last play of the game, despite Ferguson still being on the court, the Thunder left Chris Paul on Tatum, almost encouraging Boston into feeding Jayson down low. But while Tatum was able to move Ferguson with his sheer size, the veteran CP3 was a different story. Despite being just 6-1, Chris Paul is much stronger than his teammate, and as we see below, Tatum is unable to get to his spot to elevate and get off a good look. Instead, Paul harasses him and forces Tatum into a tough turnaround from outside the elbow.
Whether it was a conscious decision by the coaching staff or just something that happened in the flow of the game, Tatum found himself with his back to the basket a lot more than usual on Sunday. For the most part, he did well, creating a few open looks for himself and his teammates, but his inability to get a good shot over the 6-1 Paul at the end showed that Tatum still has ways to go to improve his game down low.
While he’s at his best when he’s attacking the basket, when the game slows down in the playoffs, the development of Tatum’s post game for the occasional mismatch can add a new element to this Boston offense.
In Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics have four of the top pull-up shooters in the league, especially out of the pick-and-roll. Come playoff time, it could very well be that teams try to switch screens as much as possible against Boston to negate that pull-up threat.
We all saw what happened on Sunday afternoon at the end of the Clippers-Lakers bout, where, for the last few minutes of the game, LeBron James and the Lakers just hunted Lou Williams in the pick-and-roll – almost every time resulting in a switch or an open shot for the man Lou Will was supposed to guard. Now, Tatum is obviously nowhere near the physical specimen that LeBron is, but he is often too quick for bigger defenders, prompting teams to put smaller wings on him. If Tatum can consistently take advantage of smaller opponents on switches, it could prove vital in April, May, and June.