For a player many believe is already capable of leading the Boston Celtics to The Finals, Jayson Tatum’s 2-of-18 performance in Friday’s loss to Milwaukee was hardly a convincing first step.
All eyes were on Boston’s leading scorer on Sunday to see how he’d respond against the Trail Blazers. That he bounced-back better than anyone could’ve predicted, with 34 points on 11-of-22 shooting, eight assists, five triples, and four rebounds in a W, speaks to the realism of his superstardom that has continued to legitimize itself.
“He’s special,” Brad Stevens said Saturday at practice, “and that’s why I lose no sleep over nights like last night (against Milwaukee).”
As much as he might tell you, Tatum’s masterful performance had little to do with his fresh haircut. “Look good, play good,” sure, but at the core of the differences between his two seeding games lies in the personnel tasked with stopping him.
The gap between the Bucks top-ranked defense and Portland’s 27th is about as large as the those numbers would suggest. One boasts strong guards, lanky wings, and a stout interior presence. The other’s efforts are hamstrung due to the lack of perimeter stoppers, even with the return of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic.
The ever-expanding growth of Brook Lopez has led him to become one of the game’s most potent rim protectors. Opponents shoot just 53.7 percent against him in the restricted area, the best mark among players contesting at least 13.0 shots per game.
Milwaukee’s drop coverage invites players to challenge their seven-foot anchor who’s second in the NBA at 2.5 blocks per game. Tatum did and failed repeatedly without a single make near the rim in six attempts, three of which were blocked by Lopez.
“He got some decent looks off of pick-and-rolls,” Stevens said of Tatum after the loss. “They did a good job loading up to him, they did a good job at the rim on him. He’ll go back and look at it — he had a couple nights like that early in the season too. Least of our concerns is him finding the net, it’s what he does. So he’ll be fine.”
Nurkic was a similarly stout inside presence the last time we saw him, top-5 in opponents’ restricted area shooting in 2018-19. Teammate Hassan Whiteside was second in the league this season behind only Lopez.
If Tatum was more hesitant to recklessly attack the basket — his six paint attempt versus Milwaukee were cut in half against Portland (a uncontested fast break layup not included) — his rediscovered shooting stroke ensured we wouldn’t notice.
After going 0-of-4 from beyond the arc against the Bucks, Tatum was 5-of-8 against the Blazers.
His goose egg can only be described as an outlier, the simple result of missed shots Tatum normally makes. None of the four were heavily contested. Two were of the pullup variety he’s shot 39.9 percent on during the season, fourth-best in the NBA.
Portland was content to let Damian Lillard and Gary Trent Jr. guard Tatum for a good chunk of the game. At 6’2’ and 6’5’ respectively, neither could properly contest Tatum’s jumper when he let fly long range bombs with varying levels of difficulty.
After surrendering 21 first-half points to Tatum, Portland’s third-quarter comeback was at least partially built on taking the ball out of Tatum’s hands. They sent multiple defenders on drives and made sure he faced two defenders coming off screens.
An improved passer in his breakout season, Tatum responded by dropping five of his career-high eight assists in the fourth quarter, stepping into a facilitator role Kemba Walker couldn’t fill as a minutes restriction kept him seated for the entirety of the final frame.
There was simple but correct ball movement, throw aheads and drive-and-kicks, including one for a Jaylen Brown triple that sealed the game for Boston.
“It wasn’t just about the ball going in,” Stevens noted. “He looked at it and thought about how else can I impact the game. He had several drive and kicks where he just made the right decisions. That last pass to Jaylen (Brown) was a great one.”
‘’It’s just about making the right reads,’’ Tatum said. ‘’Seeing the double-teams. Making the right play. Jaylen was open and those were the right reads.’’
Poor performances by Tatum, similar to the one against Milwaukee, have been few and far between. Only six other times this season has he shot below 30.0 percent from the field.
Each of those six was followed by a noticeable rebound, averaging out to 26.0 points on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.9 percent from distance. Boston went 5-1 in those games.
Tatum might struggle at times. Stars of every ilk do eventually. Like the NBA’s elite, though, he knows how to follow up with an outing that gets him right back on track. He did exactly that against Portland. It was exactly what both he and the Celtics needed to establish whatever momentum they can muster as the playoffs near.