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How Tatum got his groove back against the Suns

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It was clear there was a plan: force feed Tatum the ball to get him going.

Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

In the Celtics second game in the NBA bubble, Jayson Tatum carried over his poor shooting from the first scrimmage into the first quarter. Having shot a tragic 1-for-6 from the field against Oklahoma City, Tatum continued to struggle early against Phoenix.

Missing his opening four attempts from the field, Tatum found his way to the bench early in the first quarter. Smart replaced Tatum with 7:28 remaining, and the 22-year-old wing was reinserted three minutes later.

It was clear there was a plan: force feed Tatum the ball to get him going. Two minutes later, Tatum drew contact on his way to the rim and went to the line as a result of his aggressive play.

The Duke product went 1-for-2 from the line, but that’s all he needed. The lid was finally off the basket. In his next trip down the court, Tatum went to his now patented side-step step-back elbow three. Money, and according to Tatum, it felt good:

“It felt good, and I think that’s what the scrimmages are for: to knock some of the rust off. Try to get back in a rhythm and a groove, I played a little bit more today, and it felt good to see some shots go through.”

It looked good, too. Following the initial free throw make, Tatum proceeded to hit his next three in a row. Over the last two games, Stevens has regularly placed Tatum as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations.

You can see Tatum come off a dribble hand off from Daniel Theis, head towards mid-court to reset the offense, and then attack the pick-and-roll to get the open three. Running Tatum as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations has been a point of emphasis this year, with him operating in this role 341 times across 51 games compared to his 189 possessions in 79 appearances last year per NBA Stats.

Tatum still struggled to find consistency against the Suns. The first time All-Star went 6-for-17 from the field. There were some poorly selected shots, while some drives looked overzealous as Tatum continued to force the issue inside.

Layups such as these are a cause for concern, should they bleed into the seeding games next week. CelticsBlog’s Bill Sy raised his anxieties in our Slack following the victory:

“FWIW, What I’m hating so far is that right-handed scoop shot from the left side he’s been trying to get off/draw fouls off of”

He has a point. Tatum ignores the Spain pick-and-roll in transition that leaves Kemba open for a kick out and opts to draw contact on his drive instead.

Outside of his streaky offense, the St. Louis native did show some high level defense, while also controlling the glass, finishing the contest with a game-leading nine rebounds and a steal.

Before the season was suspended, the 6’8’’ wing ranked 15th in the league for deflections with 2.9 per game. A player’s deflections provide a clearer insight into their defensive activity than steals because they better display effort levels. Tatum is also third on the Celtics in shot contests per game with 7.2 per night. NBA Stats hasn’t tracked the hustle stats for the scrimmage, but it would be safe to assume Tatum would rank highly in this category, too.

Despite Tatum’s rollercoaster first two games within the bubble, it’s important to remember these games are just scrimmages. The players are operating in a new environment, devoid of fans and atmosphere, something Tatum talked about after the game:

“New environment, new experience. The first game in months, no fans, it’s just different. I had fun! I missed playing basketball, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t weird. Today felt better. Obviously, I think the team that ultimately wins it all is the team that adapts the quickest.”

If the Celtics intend on raising Banner 18, it will require Jayson Tatum et al. to adapt quicker than what they have shown over these last two games. For now, we can take solace in the fact that the lid has come off the basket for Tatum, and he’s already showing some mid-season form on the defensive end.

We will learn more in Tuesday’s game against the Houston Rockets, where hopefully, the team (and specifically Tatum) looks closer to what we would hope to see when the seeding games begin on Friday.