Amid all the hoopla surrounding his bucket-getting abilities, Jayson Tatum has also showed tremendous growth as a passer in his breakout third season. He’s surpassed his career-high in dimes in both the regular and postseason, breaking down defenses showing him more attention.
Tatum had set a career playoff-high in dimes just several games ago when he dished out six assists in Boston’s Game 2 win over Toronto. He topped it in Game 6 with nine, falling just short of his first-ever triple double with 29 point and 14 rebounds.
So much of a superstar’s responsibilities lies in their capacity to dissect the stream of multiple defenders to find the open man. After locating Marcus Smart for triples in both corners early in the first, Tatum finds himself driving from the right wing to the top of the key. Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet converge to form a wall near the right elbow backed by Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam at both edges of the paint.
With four defenders in his way, it doesn’t take long for Tatum to locate Jaylen Brown in the left corner with a pass thrown across his body for Boston’s fourth 3-pointer in less than five minutes.
Help off the corners is commonplace among NBA defenses. Even if it’s the shot they detest giving up, corner defenders are incentivized to help protect the basket typically as the closest available rotation, trusting their teammates to quickly cover in his place.
Five of Tatum’s assists resulted in corner triples. Though just one was of the drive-and-kick variety, it was an advantage taken in textbook fashion that capitalized on a questionable rotation by OG Anunoby.
Vertical spacing is hardly considered a standard attribute of productivity, more screen assist than rebounds per game. But a big man’s ability to catch and finish a lob — the higher they can reach, the better — opens up another passing route for his teammates to utilize.
Daniel Theis isn’t Robert Williams III in that sense, but the 6’8’’ big man can still get off the ground when he has to.
By the time Tatum jabs left past VanVleet at the top of the 3-point line, he’s walled off from the rim by Anunoby and Norman Powell with two passing options for his choosing.
Passing back to Smart drifting towards the left wing for an open three is one option, and a good one on a night Smart went 6-of-11 on threes.
However, Theis is stationed in the dunker spot on the left baseline. When Anunoby steps up to cut Tatum off, Theis finds himself behind the entire Raptors defense. Fitting a dump off around Anunoby’s 7’2’ wingspan is a tough ask for Tatum — not to mention Powell’s 6’11’’ arms — so he lofts a pass over the top where only Theis can catch and slam it down.
Certain assists showcase an increased level of cerebral awareness by the passer. LeBron James is probably the most consistent example of these types of plays. He doesn’t necessarily need to see a player before dishing them the ball. When a play is unfolding, if A comes first and B follows, James is aware of the logical conclusion and benefits from it more often than not.
A similar situation took place between Tatum and Theis during the second quarter. The pair solely operated the right side of the court. A jab and drive towards the middle by Tatum pushes Theis from the right elbow closer to the rim.
Pascal Siakam is the closest help defender to Tatum, but he can’t afford to leave Kemba Walker at the top of the key. As Tatum gets closer to the bucket, Serge Ibaka naturally turns his attention to the man with the ball but doesn’t fully commit with his body, leaving a gap between himself and the ball handler.
With Lowry at his hip, Tatum’s eyes stay locked onto Ibaka, giving the illusion that he’s attacking to get a layup on the left side. This prompts Serge to take one step to the right to provide some resistance, the final confirmation for Tatum to exploit the hole and smoothly dump a bounce pass into Theis for a push shot before Ibaka can recover.
“A good scorer can exist within an offense, but a great one uses those scoring opportunities to actively enhance their ability to assist their less gifted teammates,” wrote CBS Sports’ Sam Quinn in late April. “The simplest way to do that is to master a few basic passes, the ones that only a few players are ever strategically forced to make.”
Not all of Tatum’s passes were positive in the Game 6 loss. He had six turnovers, all in the second half, including a costly pass to Nick Nurse (?) in the final minute of a tied game in regulation.
On a night when he shot a less-than-stellar 5-of-13 on 2-point looks, Tatum’s evolving ability and willingness to set up his teammates should bode well for Boston’s chances in Game 7 if Toronto’s defense has him once again struggling to score inside the arc.