Jayson Tatum completed his first playoff series as an All-Star, standing on the precipice of superstardom. Throughout his four games against the Philadelphia 76ers, Tatum displayed his abundance of offensive weaponry and defensive skills that continue to impress.
In Games 1 and 2, Tatum was electric, torching the Sixers on both ends of the floor. Games 3 and 4 were slightly different, as Philadelphia adjusted, forcing Tatum to find new ways to impact the game. So, let’s take a look at the third-year wing’s series to understand his impact further.
One of the most considerable surprises in this series was how often Tatum ran the pick-and-roll as the ball-handler. In the regular season, the Duke product operated as the ball-handler for 5.9 possessions per game. Against the Sixers, those possessions rose to 7.7, according to NBA Stats. Despite the rise in usage rate in the pick-and-roll, Tatum’s efficiency stood firm, only slipping by 0.5% to finish the series with an effective field goal percentage of 54.5%.
With the Sixers playing a drop defense for the first two games, it’s understandable that Tatum feasted when coming off a screen. The 6’8 wing devastated with the rock in his hands, finding regular space on the perimeter and in the driving lanes.
Coming off the Hayward dribble hand off, Tatum forces Tobias Harris to go under the Daniel Theis screen. Theis then rolls to the paint and seals off Embiid. Tatum, who has dusted Harris, turns on the jets once he sees Theis in position and finishes the easy layup at the rim.
With Tatum struggling to finish around the rim to begin the season, he’s become a ferocious slasher when operating out of pick plays. Layups weren’t the only way the 22-year-old punished the Sixers, as he also hurt them when stepping into his three-point jumper when coming off the screen.
Setting up in a horns set alongside Grant Williams, Tatum flares out to the elbow. Grant Williams sets the screen on Raul Neto, Tatum steps into his shot and fires the three-ball for a quick-hitting shot.
A shocking development in the 204lb wing’s playoff series was his reduced use of isolation plays. Tatum averaged 3.6 isolations per game in the regular season. This dropped to three against the Sixers. When he did go ISO, it was usually for his now patented dribble step back 3.
And if we’re going to talk about shocking developments, how can we not discuss Tatum’s new floater game? There isn’t a stat that I’m aware of which tracks floaters, but Tatum adding that kind of shot to his arsenal will cause defenses nightmares as we move deeper into the playoffs.
Tatum was having it all on his terms in the first two games, but when the Sixers pushed Embiid further up the floor to pressure the ball handler, things became more difficult for the young star. Instead of having to beat Matisse Thybulle for a scoring opportunity, Tatum now had to deal with a hedging Joel Embiid and a resistant Josh Richardson. The result of this defensive adjustment was Tatum becoming a reduced force on offense, as the Sixers got him into early foul trouble in Game 3 and put the clamps down in Game 4.
In Games 1 and 2, Tatum scored a combined 65 points (on 53.6% shooting), collected 18 rebounds, and dished six assists. In the two subsequent games, Tatum hit for a combined 43 points (on 43.2% shooting), pulled down 21 rebounds, and supplied four dimes. A tale of two halves, if you will.
Look how much higher Embiid plays Tatum, who’s operating as the ball-handler in this pick-and-roll. Meeting Tatum on the high help-line and staying in front of him for the entire drive, Embiid stays more connected and alters Tatum’s shot to force the miss.
Overall, Tatum finished the series averaging 27 points, which places him 11th league-wide as of August 28th. But what about his defense?
Tatum contested an average of 7.5 shot attempts per game on the business end of the floor - the fourth-best on the Celtics roster. Also ranking fifth on the roster for deflections per game with 1.8, Tatum ranks respectably among the two prominent hustle stats.
The deflections are essential because the St. Louis native’s defensive game is predicated on closing passing lanes when guarding off-ball. According to Basketball Index, Tatum saves the Celtics 4.1 points per game with his passing lane defense, ranking him in the 84th percentile.
According to NBA Stats’ match up data, Tatum’s main task on defense was to shut down Richardson, which he did to devastating effect—holding Richardson to just 7 points per game while guarding him for 19:51 and 71.7 partial possessions. It was a similar story for Tatum when he defended Thybulle, holding him scoreless over 9:14 and 31.6 partial possessions.
Tatum starts the play defending Harris, as Richardson begins to drive the lane Tatum switches explosively. Denying Richardson the weak side passing lane, Tatum stays with his man and gathers himself into shooting motion. As Richardson begins to bring the ball up, Tatum gets a well-timed swipe to register one of his seven blocks for the series.
In a series where the Sixers struggled to make their presence felt, the Celtics young All-Star didn’t take his foot off the pedal, as the Celtics went on to sweep their fiercest conference rival. Ending the series in the top-15 in scoring, 10th in rebounds, and 3rd in blocks (as of August 24th), Tatum is continuing to take strides towards becoming a bona fide NBA superstar.
The next test for Tatum and the Celtics will be against a tough switchable Toronto team. If the #3 pick of the 2017 Draft can continue to score in a multitude of ways, while denying his man on the defensive end, it won’t be long until we’re talking about him as a definitive two-way talent in the league.