If this Celtics season has been defined by one thing over all others, it hasn’t been an inability to find open, objectively “good” shots. Nor has it been their savvy defensive identity, contrary to what popular belief may tell you. Rather, it has been something so simple, yet so pivotal when it comes to winning basketball games, something this team has done at a below-.500 level so far this season.
You’ll laugh, but it’s true, and there’s more to it than meets the eye: this Celtics season has been defined by the team’s inability to make shots.
Boston has struggled in far too many facets to count, but principally, they’ve been unable to knock down open looks. While they’ve attempted 89.8 shots per game this season, 11th-most in the league, they’ve shot just 43.9 percent per night, 23rd in the league. Just one team above .500, the Dallas Mavericks, has maintained a worse nightly clip. The others... well, we mustn’t speak ill of the tanking.
Last night’s game in Atlanta did that trend no favors overall, but at the very least, the Celtic who needed a good night the most finally got one. Jayson Tatum, who has spent much of this season being berated by defenses to the point of no contention, scored 34 points — his second-best scoring effort this season — on 55 percent shooting — his third-best night from the field. Though it came in a frustrating 110-99 loss, Tatum’s evening has to feel like some sort of silver lining, particularly coming off a four-game stretch during which he never shot better than 40 percent.
“Obviously, getting easy looks in the beginning, getting out in transition, it always kinda opens up the game and the basket when you get layups and easy ones in transition,” Tatum said postgame. “The game just starts to open up a little bit more.”
It’s true: plenty of Tatum’s shots did come a bit easier than they might normally. He and Marcus Smart connected on a few breakaway trips that ended in Tatum finishing at the basket in one way or another; Tatum scored seven points off turnovers and six fastbreak points. But it would be unfair to categorize Tatum’s night as one of solely easy opportunities. He also created plenty of shots off the dribble, draining a number of pull-ups in tight coverage or using a barrage of dribble moves to create space for a step-back jumper. That he was able to create those shots is no surprise — he’s been creating them all season. They just hadn’t been falling, and his flow last night felt like it could bode well for consistency moving forward.
It’s going to come. I’m not worried,” Tatum said after the game. “I know I put in the work all the time, so it’s only a matter of time until I feel like myself again.”
Head coach Ime Udoka echoed that sentiment, noting, “the shots he’s been getting all season that he’s been missing — that he made tonight — are great looks. He’s been getting quality looks, whether it’s in pick-and-roll, isolation, transition, post-ups, or off-ball. We all know he’s going to snap out of that and go on a run, and he started off hot tonight, so we’re not really worried about that. It’s just a matter of feeding him when he gets in that mode.”
The problem then, which Udoka touched on, is getting Tatum the ball, and especially, getting him the ball late in games where his offensive spark is needed the most. In a game where he shot the ball 22 times, for him to shoot just four times in the fourth quarter tells you one of two things: that he either didn’t get the ball back from his teammates, or wasn’t able to find opportunities to score due to an increase in defensive pressure. Last night, it was much more so the latter.
Atlanta upped its intensity in the fourth, sending two or more defenders toward Tatum when he came off screens, causing poor decisions (he had four turnovers in the fourth, as many as he had shot attempts) or rushed possessions. Though he made three of his four shots in the period, his last bucket came with 8:43 remaining in the game. He didn’t shoot again until there were less than two minutes remaining, with the game already out of hand.
“It’s what teams are going to do,” Udoka said postgame. “Some teams have blitzed him, some teams are just showing that crowd, and credit to him, he’s getting off the ball. The thing that we always tell him is, if guys are making shots, you pass up a shot and get a guy a good look, it’ll open up lanes for you. He’s doing the right thing. He’s being unselfish and doing what’s asked of him.”
The trouble, though? When his teammates’ shots aren’t falling, is there a benefit to being unselfish — to getting them the ball and hoping for the best — especially when Tatum himself is riding a heat like he was last night? It’s a difficult balance to strike — he knows it, too.
“I draw a lot of attention,” he said, a humongous, not-at-all attention-grabbing silver “JT” chain dangling from his neck. “[Teams] don’t really like to help off me or switch, so sometimes when you’ve got that much attention, you be a good screener, look to play make a little bit more, but sometimes it happens like that.”
He continued: “I think it’s a responsibility that, I guess, not a lot of people understand. Being in that situation, being in that position of being that guy on the team, you have to try to figure it out. It is a balance. The simple answer is make the right play. That could be passing to somebody, being a good screener, or finding a matchup and creating for yourself… Each possession is a little different than the rest.”
There are going to be nights like Wednesday, nights where one player is hot and the others are... well, not. That’s part of the ride, and there’s almost no concrete way to fix it. Players will get back in the gym, get up more shots, and hope that they go in. Perhaps it’s the fatigue of three seasons beginning or unfolding in the span of one calendar year starting to catch up to them, but nevertheless, this Celtics team is far too talented to continue missing shots the way they have so far this season. As for Tatum? It’s about reps, and like his team, it’s about hope. As cliché as that sounds, sometimes that’s all you can muster.
“Hopefully, being efficient like tonight. Obviously, I felt a little more like myself than I have,” Tatum said of how he can regain his typical offensive rhythm following last night’s performance. “My body felt pretty good, and hopefully I can keep it up. Hopefully, it helps to translate to winning. But like I said, hopefully, I can get back in the flow of things.”