The Celtics brought out the brooms and completed the sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday with a 110-106 victory in Game 4 to move on the Eastern Conference semifinals against Toronto. There was perhaps no greater beneficiary of Simmons’ season-ending knee injury than Jayson Tatum.
Per NBA Stats, no player spent more time covering Tatum than the 24:07 that Simmons logged matched up against him, and without the Australian, the Sixers simply didn’t have anyone with the necessary size or athleticism to guard Tatum, and it showed. Jayson had his way with Philly all series, averaging 27 points and 9.8 rebounds on 48.7% shooting including 45.2% from deep on 7.5 attempts a night.
Since that stinker in the bubble opener (which I think we can all agree was down to the hair), Tatum has picked up right where he left off when the season shut down in March, getting to his spots and scoring at will. He’s proved just how talented he is as a scorer – more than capable of breaking guys down off the bounce and with a lethal pull-up game where he uses his (at least according to Brad Stevens) 6’10 frame to elevate over defenders to eliminate contests from guys like Josh Richardson and Shake Milton.
Now, the next step for Tatum is to work on his passing to consistently making the right reads. The Celtics are blessed with exceptional perimeter scoring talent in Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and when healthy Gordon, Hayward. When teams are putting extra attention on Tatum it likely means that one of the other two has a favorable matchup or can take advantage of a 4-on-3.
Making the right read is a common part of the growing process for all elite wings as defenses try to force the ball out of their hands more. What separates the truly special wings is their ability to also set their teammates up and take what the defense gives. While most of Tatum’s stats compare well with the other All-NBA candidates in the league, his 3.0 assists and 5.5 potential assists are both lower than the numbers for guys like Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler. That being said, playmaking is generally a later step in the develoment for wings. Kevin Durant, for example, averaged just 2.8 dimes in his third year, but took it all the way up to 5.0 by his last season in OKC, and nearly 6 in Golden State.
The Sixers made a few small adjustments in the first round. Tatum faced predominantly the same coverage throughout the series, but that definitely won’t be the case in Round 2 against Nick Nurse and Toronto. As Jared Dubin and Krishna Narsu explored in their recent FiveThirtyEight article, the Raptors rank 12th since 2013-14 in their new metric called Variance+, which is a measure of how often a team changes up its defense on a nightly basis. They’re fairly aggressive too, ranking 14th in the same time frame for Aggression+, which shows how often they trap, double-team, blitz, etc. It’ll be crucial for Tatum to continue to make the right reads against these coverages as he did against Philadelphia in Game 4.
The Sixers predominantly dropped Joel Embiid in the pick-and-roll, but on small-small pick and rolls with Jaylen Brown, Philadelphia tried to step out and hedge, but Tatum remained calm and made the right read in each instance.
We can see Mike Scott come out with the hedge, but Tatum fends him off and uses his size to elevate over Richardson to get Brown the ball. Since Scott was preoccupied with Tatum, Joel Embiid has to switch over to Brown, and while Jaylen misses the layup it’s a great look that comes from Tatum not trying to force anything.
It’s Scott again who comes up as Jaylen slips, and Tatum gets rid of it early with a cheeky little behind-the-back feed to Brown. JB again has a mismatch in the smaller Shake Milton and powers by him for the and-1.
Of course, it’s certainly easier for Tatum not to force things up double digits and 3-0, but getting more experience dealing with these double teams and more aggressive coverages will be helpful once Nick Nurse starts making some adjustments.
Finishing at the rim has been the one part of Tatum’s scoring game that has been a little up-and-down this season. He’s sometimes struggled around the basket against bigger defenders, but Jayson has developed a nice little dump-off pass to his bigs in the paint.
As teams try and take away his deadly pull-up threes, the lane opens up a bit more for Tatum, and feeds like the one below to Kanter will be there. Tatum and Theis have formed a nice combination on the pick and roll with Theis’ seals and he’ll need to keep finding creative ways to get his bigs the ball as he did here. Notice how Tatum sets up the pass with two long, slow strides to create the angle to dish it under Tobias Harris’ hands.
It’s not just these little dump-offs either. Tatum did a great job of using his scoring gravity to make some impressive passes to create shots for his teammates, too.
With Matisse Thybulle on the wrong side of him, Tatum sees Tobias helping on Theis in the paint and makes the quick and assertive decision to fire a pass off to an open Jaylen Brown in the corner. While Brown missed, it was a great look largely thanks to the speed of Tatum’s decision-making.
This last clip is perhaps his best pass of the night. With both Embiid and Shake Milton worried about him pulling up in transition, Tatum uses his eyes to manipulate Tobias Harris into thinking he was going to pass to Theis darting down the lane, opening up space for a wide-open corner 3 for Marcus Smart. Tatum finds him with a nice, looping skip pass, and while Smart passes up the shot, it’s a great look from Tatum that showed some advanced playmaking chops.
Tatum obviously still has ways to go as a passer, and too often still has tunnel vision when driving to the cup, but he’s gotten much better at making the right reads and not forcing up tough shots. Facing a wildly aggressive Nick Nurse – who, as we saw when he deployed a box-and-one on Steph Curry in The Finals last summer, is more than willing to try different things in the playoffs – Tatum is bound to face some double-teams and funky coverages against Toronto.
In Brown, Walker, and Smart, he has teammates who are more than capable of taking advantage of mismatches. If Tatum can continue to make the right plays and not search too much for his own shot, it could be vital to the Celtics’ potential success against the Raptors.