Plenty of eyes were on Jayson Tatum in anticipation of his first playoff run as the undisputed leader of the Boston Celtics. The same role that allowed him to flourish with career-highs and his first All-Star appearance painted a target on the back of a player who’d yet to feel it when it mattered most.
“Tatum may very well be due for a session that shows him how far he still has to go in pursuit of his peak,” yours truly wrote just before the NBA’s restart. “Or maybe, he really is the player so many have been swift to anoint him as, ready for the moment heading his way.”
A two-game sample size offers few conclusions but plenty in the realm of coronation preparation. In leading the Celtics to a 2-0 series lead, Tatum has compiled 65 points and 18 rebounds. He’s shot 10-of-17 on threes and 22-of-41 overall, even going 11-of-13 from the stripe.
Admittedly, these Sixers are not the same ones that took three of four from Boston during the regular season. Ben Simmons is out. Joel Embiid plays like he knows it, dispirited by a roster built to seemingly make the already strenuous job of leading this undermanned unit noticeably harder.
It’s the type of opponent you’d expect a superstar to up 32.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game against. Those expectations come with the territory. Damned if you fall short but left without a parade for doing your job.
“I thought the guys were doing the best that they could,” Sixers coach Brett Brown admitted after Game 2. “Tatum is a handful... They made shots and we had a hard time dealing with that.”
More so than the gaudy numbers is the route Tatum has taken to produce them, falling in line with many of the most noticeable Finals MVPs, including the two most recent recipients.
According to NBA Stats, Tatum has attempted 10 mid-range shots across the two games, converting half of them. The descriptions read like a list checked off in a training session with his personal trainer, Drew Hanlen, with variations that include step backs, turnaround fades, and driving floaters.
Tatum has also gone 4-of-8 in paint shots outside the restricted area, displaying a soft touch against one of the league’s premier rim protectors.
As much disdain as analytics breed, the art of the mid-range takes on added importance in the postseason when varied shot creation is as valued a trait as there is. Most modern defenses prefer that shot to its alternatives, creating a window the elites know how to capitalize on.
Throughout the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Kawhi Leonard shot nearly 50 percent on mid-range jumpers and 40.4 percent on non-restricted area paint shots en route to the Finals MVP award. When Kevin Durant led Golden State to the 2018 title, his efficiency from both areas was at 54.3 and 43.3 percent, respectively.
Tatum is showing off with a similar archetype to two of the decade’s best forwards. He’s also sprinkled in a shot of ever-growing value among NBA scorers neither KD nor Kawhi could master.
Of the seven triples Tatum has knocked down against Philly, five were categorized as pull ups. Six came off the bounce. This is the same player who, at 40.4 percent, tied for first with Damian Lillard during the regular season among players with at least 4.0 pull-up 3-point attempts per game. They’re usually quick-hitting looks that defenses can’t game plan against. KD and Kawhi couldn’t even top 35 percent on roughly half the volume.
“I think the most important thing is I want to be that guy,” Tatum said. “I want to be able to make the big plays, whether it’s scoring or making the right pass because I’m drawing attention. I think that’s the first step: wanting to be that person.”
Just over two-thirds of Tatum’s field goals have been unassisted so far during these playoffs, yet he boasts a shooting line of .537/.588/846. He is creating his own looks with an incredible mixture of variation, volume, and efficiency that, at just 22 years of age, helped him become the youngest Celtic ever to score 30 points in consecutive games.
We can keep raising the bar to include later rounds or stingier defenses than Philly’s 17th-ranked bubble defense, bracing for Tatum to fall short. The Celtics have implemented no such safety net, instead embracing the logical conclusion of everything Tatum has shown us dating back to his rookie playoff run.
“We expect it now, for sure,” Kemba Walker said of his teammate’s historic production. “He’s a superstar. He’s a superstar. He’s been showing it night-in and night-out. He just makes the right reads, man. He’s a special talent.”
In the interest of taking down the Celtics, it’s probably best if opponents expected it as well. Not that it’s likely to make a difference either way. That is one of the benefits of superstardom.