Jayson Tatum averaged a career-high 3.0 assists per game last season. That number increased to 5.0 a night during Boston’s lengthy playoff run, where he even crossed the double-digit assist mark for the first time in his career with 11 dimes in Game 6 against Miami.
Those were quality benchmarks for Tatum to pass. He reached another against Detroit Sunday afternoon. His go-ahead field goal and a subsequent defensive strip of Blake Griffin will receive all the praise, but along with 24 points and eight rebounds, Tatum dished out a career-best 12 assists to help Boston to a 122-120 win over the Pistons.
Potent scoring prowess had done wonders for Tatum’s individual greatness, pushing him into the 2020 All-Star Game and helping earn an All-NBA Third Team nod.
However, the challenge many great bucket-getters face is getting their elite gifts to work for others. In Tatum’s case, that didn’t mean becoming a full-time point forward. But to elevate his teammates and by extension the Celtics, he’d have to learn how to make the most of the double teams and added defensive attention his swift ascension now warrants.
Such awareness and the following execution was the key to his impressive passing display against the Pistons. Detroit’s game plan called to get the ball out of Tatum’s hands with constant traps off pick-and-rolls. Tatum could only do so much to put the ball in the basket when forced to give it up. But he could do his part to locate the best alternative.
Around the eight-minute mark of the second quarter, Saddiq Bey and Jahlil Okafor attempt to trap Tatum near the midcourt logo to force him to relinquish the basketball. Doing so would compromise Detroit’s defense and leave them a defender short in the action. But with Jeff Teague the only above-average playmaker sharing the court with Tatum — along with Robert Williams III, Payton Pritchard and Semi Ojeleye — the Pistons made a calculated gamble, believing Boston’s underwhelming decision-makers couldn’t capitalize.
Instead of immediately dishing the ball, Tatum materializes the best of both worlds. He turns the corner on Okafor and makes a b-line for the rim. The only problem is Williams crowds the lane by stationing himself in the strongside dunker’s spot.
Tatum remedies the situation by turning across the paint and angling himself towards Detroit’s bench, freezing Sekou Doumbouya just enough for a drop off to the Time Lord for a dunk.
We saw a similar situation in one of Boston’s final possessions, although with the stakes significantly raised. Mason Plumlee hedges hard off a Daniel Theis screen on the left side of the court with Jerami Grant fighting over to stay attached to his man (Tatum).
Had Tatum picked up his dribble or backpedaled to further draw the two defenders away from the play, you’re looking at a tough direct passing angle to find Jaylen Brown in the opposite corner. The only viable option from there is a dump off to Theis and asking him to make a play in a 4-on-3 situation. Though a solid decision-maker, he’s not the one Boston would prefer to decide a tight game.
By skirting past Plumlee, Tatum affords Theis more time to draw a tagging Bey off Brown. Having gotten closer to the middle of the floor, Tatum also makes it easier for himself to whip a cross-court pass to Brown for a triple that gave the Celtics back the lead.
Shoehorned into the power forward position in a supersized starting unit, Theis has had to grow more comfortable as an outside shooter, drifting out beyond the paint after setting a screen instead of rolling to the bucket.
Some of those instances have Theis infrequently popping out to the 3-point line. Though as someone with an outside shot that’s still a work in progress, he’s found himself hovering around the mid-range area as well, where the shot isn’t worth as much but is more likely to go in.
The result is a short roll that has been an added layer to the two-man game between he and Tatum that help if only slightly to minimize the spacing issues the two-big lineups present.
Maybe the best part of Tatum’s performance? In more than 36 minutes of action, he didn’t register a single turnover. Dating back to last season, only seven other players have matched or exceeded his assist totals without giving the ball away. Only three of those players — Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, and LeBron James — command similar defensive attention.
The absence of Kemba Walker and the departure of Gordon Hayward doesn’t just leave the Celtics absent of two of their four leading scorers from a season ago. Those two were also second and third in assists for Boston, creating a playmaking void that has to be made up elsewhere.
If the trend Tatum has laid out is any indication, dating back to his improvements last year through his most recent outing, he’s capable of pulling his weight to help make up the difference.