Jayson Tatum has undergone quite the transformation in the last year. Expected to assume more responsibilities after the departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, the third-year forward has blossomed in ways not even his staunchest supporters expected this early in his career.
Top draft talent to All-Star status in just his third season. One of the game’s brightest young stars fighting up the ladder and knocking on the door of the top-10. Boston’s future leading the way today.
His ascension towards superstardom is what gives validity to Boston’s title hopes, resting on recent play ranking among the best in the NBA. Since February 1st, he’s put up 29.2 points — shooting line of .476/.468/.752 — with 7.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game.
That’s been enough for many to crown Tatum as a player capable of guiding the Celtics to a championship. At 22, he’ll have many opportunities in the coming years, but this could be his first true test as Boston’s best player in the bubble.
“People say, ‘what’s different about the playoffs?’” explained former NBA head coach P.J. Carlesimo to The Ringer’s Ryan O’Hanlon in 2017. “‘Well, guess what? You’re not playing the 14 teams that are under .500.’”
Tatum has proven capable of stepping up to that challenge against stiff competition during the regular season. He put up 39 points in a win against the Clippers in February and dropped a career-high-tying 41 on the Lakers two games later in Los Angeles.
As impressive as Tatum was against the premiere players at his position, reaching that level becomes more difficult upon filtering out the Atlantas, Clevelands, and Minnesotas of the world, all teams Tatum has dominated since February 1st that build confidence and momentum leading up to those nationally televised contests.
However, postseason success is about tactical adjustments, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent, and pursuing a confinement of the former and exposure of the latter.
Though typically the #1 priority in any regular season contest, the ability for defenses to plan against every iota of Tatum’s game becomes a lot easier when he’s your only focus over a two-week stretch. In the haze of an 82-game regular season, the attention of an opponent is on the bigger picture and there’s less time to gameplan and make opponent-specific adjustments.
“If you play a team on a back end of a back-to-back, you have a morning breakfast meeting, a walk-through, then you have about 15 minutes before the game to talk,” explained Celtics legend Kevin McHale.
“[In the playoffs], you have about four, five games to say, ‘OK, they really struggle with pick-and-roll on the right wing, and these are the spots that are going to be open. They overcommit here, they under-commit there.’”
Not even three years into his NBA career, Tatum is no stranger to these changes, having proven indifferent towards them as a rookie when he burst onto the playoff scene, stepping into an unfamiliar role after injuries to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward left them sidelined.
Only 20 years old at the time, Tatum led Boston with 18.5 points a game, 351 total, coming with a single point of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s rookie playoff record as the Celtics fell just short of the NBA Finals.
A rookie postseason run like Tatum’s doesn’t occur without the necessary talent to do so. But we can’t praise the unprecedented production without acknowledging that which also contributed to it, where his inexperience might have played as an advantage.
Defenses can’t structure game plans off tendencies if such tendencies are still in development. They can’t gain insight by watching film if game tape is in limited supply. From matchups against Milwaukee to Philly to Cleveland, a game mired in obscurity aided Tatum’s unexpected emergence.
A somewhat random but apt comparison is Victor Oladipo, a spectator to Russell Westbrook in OKC before assuming the reins of the Pacers franchise upon arriving in the summer of 2017.
His usage rate jumped nearly nine points, resulting in career-highs across the board and his first All-Star appearance. Opponents didn’t know what to make of the league’s Most Improved Player because of a limited sample size that marginally grew in real time.
The following season, Oladipo was still named to a second All-Star appearance before rupturing a quad tendon in January, but his scoring numbers dipped as did his efficiency, plagued by defenses no longer caught off guard by his ability.
After 59 games helped elevate him to All-Star and then Player of the Month status, Tatum will have to undergo similar adjustments. It is a form of respect, having earned enough of it to command such attention. Now, he has to command that respect in the playoffs.
No current data can speak to Tatum’s playoff readiness under his new job description. Check back at playoffs end. Numbers do exist, however, that indicate his ability to thrive in a more singular role, crucial to playoff success when opponents will seek the head of the snake more than anything else, even when surrounded by talented players.
Tatum aside, the Celtics have two other 20-point-per-game scorers, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown. They offer a sense of comfort and insurance, two players who keep some of the concerns of defenses on places other than Tatum.
Per Cleaning The Glass, Boston’s most-used lineup that features Tatum without his All-Star teammate (308 possessions) cranks out just 109.1 points per 100 possessions, a figure that ranks in the 40th percentile. For what it’s worth, this lineup includes Brown and Gordon Hayward.
Without only Brown, that number rises slightly to 111.5 (347 possessions), which would still rank in just the 49th percentile even while sharing the floor with Walker.
In the absence of them both, no lineup has seen more than 64 possessions. When amassing all fractions of the collective data totaling 1,065 possessions, the Celtics score 110.3 points per 100, in the 45th percentile.
“KD, LeBron, Duncan, Shaq & Hakeem. That’s the full list of guys 23 or under who have taken their team to the Finals in the last 40 years,” explained First Things First’s Nick Wright. “In order for the Celtics to make it, Jayson Tatum is going to have to join that list.”
That’s quite the task for a player even as ahead of the curve as Tatum is. Whereas those five current and future Hall of Famers held the reigns of their team upon arrival, Tatum has yet to experience a playoff run under that spotlight.
“Playoff basketball is tangibly different,” wrote O’Hanlon, “because coaches and players have more time to prepare and rest, the easy advantages that can be mined in mid-February all but disappear in April, and defenses get optimized toward their opponent.”
LeBron and Durant got that hard lesson early in their careers. Even after breaking through to the Finals in 2007, James fell short to the Big Three Celtics. KD struggled against both the Lakers and Mavericks in his first two playoff trips before a Finals berth in 2012.
Tatum may very well be due for a session that shows him how far he still has to go in pursuit of his peak. Or maybe, he really is the player so many have been swift to anoint him as, ready for the moment heading his way.