Jayson Tatum hasn’t started the season as he might’ve hoped. Frustration has gotten the better of him at times. Referees are allowing more physicality in the paint, while non-basketball movements no longer get the friendly whistle of seasons past. Those challenges are leading culprits to blame for Tatum’s inconsistency.
Heading into the Dallas Mavericks game, Tatum shot just 37.3% from the field and 27.1% from three on a high volume of shot attempts. His highest scoring night came against the Charlotte Hornets, where Tatum dropped 41 points on 50% shooting, but took 28 total shots to get there. After the Hornets game, Tatum’s efficiency steadily declined;
- In the first game against the Washington Wizards, Tatum shot 40% from the field and 12.5% from three.
- In the second game, Tatum shot 31.3% from the field and 0% from three.
- Against the Chicago Bulls, Tatum shot 36.4% from the field and 25% from three.
- Against the Orlando Magic, Tatum shot 25% from the field and 16.7% from three.
- Against the Miami Heat, Tatum shot 23.1% from the field and 40% from three.
In total, over a five-game period, the All-Star wing averaged 32.% from the field and 17.9% from three.
“I’ve put too much time in, too much work to doubt myself or what I’m capable of. My teammates, my coaches, and everybody we play against, they know what I’m capable of. I guess you go through stints or periods like that, where things aren’t going how you would like them to go, but you keep working and embrace it and figure it out,” Tatum said Saturday night.
Then came the turning point, in a contest where Jaylen Brown sat out with a strained hamstring, and against Luka Doncic, who loves to break the hearts of Celtics fans. Tatum has always been one to rise to the occasion, ever since being thrust into the starting rotation as a rookie, and once again, he answered the Celtics’ call.
Suddenly, Tatum’s threes started falling, and the contact that’s been limiting him at the rim (he’s shooting 50% around the cup this season) was no longer an issue.
How often have we seen Tatum go strong to the hoop like this and fail to convert after absorbing the contact? At times this season, it’s felt like he wants the foul more than the bucket. Yet, against the Mavericks, Tatum played with aggression and decisiveness and used his frame to create separation off contact. For Tatum to be successful around the rim, he will need to harness this level of physicality and aggression and channel it into every drive he makes because when he’s barreling towards the rim, there are few who can stop him.
When it comes to Tatum, having him generate easy looks at the basket only serves to open up the floor for him later in games. Defenses have to choose whether to contest the three or the drive. If Tatum continues to punish double-teams with intelligent passes, he will become borderline unguardable—if he makes his shots.
Outside of Jaylen Brown, no other member of the rotation commands such fearful attention from defenses. Sure, if Robert Williams is rolling to the hoop, defenses scramble to take away the lob threat, but Tatum and Brown generate that sense of urgency regardless of where they receive the ball or how they get to their spots.
Watch how Dorian Finney-Smith plays Tatum on this possession. Picking up his man towards the logo, edging him towards his weaker hand, all very rudimentary stuff, and then Tatum slightly changes the pace, jab steps, and pulls back with a crossover. Finney-Smith stumbles as he tries to react to a drive threat, and by the time he challenges the shot, Tatum is already at his release point. Oh, and don’t forget that Kristaps Porzingis was helping off his man, waiting to pounce into a trap on Tatum if he held the ball much longer.
“I don’t think it was anything with the offense. I was just missing shots that I make a lot of the time,” Tatum said. “I’ve been watching film, working on it, felt better today, got it going a little bit.”
Versatility is the key to Tatum’s success. His ability to attack off post-ups, catch and shoot opportunities, drives, isolations, cuts, and so forth, that’s what makes us all so high on Tatum and his future as a potential top-10 NBA talent. Yet, this season has been Tatum’s most challenging start to an NBA calendar year, and at times, it’s easy to forget how gifted he is as both a scorer and facilitator.
He reminded us against the Mavericks with a 32 point, 11 rebound night on 63% shooting from the field and 75% shooting from three, we saw the Jayson Tatum who can lead the Celtics to the promised land. Maybe not this season, perhaps not even the next, but when Tatum is firing on all cylinders, there are very few players who can hang with him on the defensive end.
“It’s who he’s always going to be, whether his shot is falling or not, he’s getting decent looks, and we know he’s going to snap out of it anytime. Tonight was a good night for him overall. Obviously, the shooting percentages are huge but very aggressive, and he’s been that whether he’s making shots or not. But with Jaylen down and some guys being out, we expect that from him, but we don’t really need to say anything to him. He’s going to be who he is; we’re just going to call the plays for him to get his shots, and we know they’re going to fall,” Udoka said after the Celtics nearly completed a 19-point comeback on Tatum’s shoulders.
Now, as the Celtics prepare for a revenge game against the Toronto Raptors later this week, we’re calling for something that’s all too familiar: consistency. Because once Tatum adds that to his game, the Celtics season is going to look a lot different than what we’ve seen throughout the first few weeks of the season.