Jaylen Brown might be out, and other Celtics might be hobbled, but if Tatum could be at his best enough to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Kevin Durant, the realm of possibilities certainly expanded.
“(Tatum) has in the past 14 months become the kind of incendiary talent whose capacity to rain fire from all over the court can at least give Boston a puncher’s chance against the elite,” wrote The Ringer’s Dan Devine following the play-in victory.
In Game 1 against the Nets, Tatum wasn’t that same guy, shooting 6-of-20 from the field for 22 points in 41 minutes. Though he was once again impressive by going 9-of-11 from the free-throw line, Tatum didn’t make a field goal in the second half and coughed up four turnovers and committed five fouls.
Boston built a 12-point lead and hung close for a good chunk of the fourth quarter thanks to a strong defensive showing. But once Brooklyn’s Big Three got it going late in the final frame, Tatum’s struggles meant the C’s didn’t have enough offense to keep the deficit from ballooning, ultimately coming up short 104-93.
“I feel like I said some good looks,” Tatum said, explaining his struggles after the game. “Tough shooting night. I just feel like I didn’t get some of them to fall down like I wanted to. It was tough.”
The peculiar thing about how Tatum’s night ended was how it started. He hit his first three shots and was a team-high plus-11 in the first quarter.
Things began to tumble downhill from there.
Tatum has a propensity for falling in love with the stepback 3-pointer, which is fine when the shot is falling but demoralizing if it’s not. After hitting the one above, his next two looks were of the same variety. He didn’t hit the rim on either, cooling off just as quickly as he warmed himself up.
Many of Tatum’s misses in the time that followed could be attributed to two factors, one of which should correct itself in the coming games while the other may require a bit more nuance in the sets called by Brad Stevens.
Tatum was 1-of-8 from the field when the closest defender was either Kyrie Irving or Bruce Brown, according to NBA.com. The former is a capable defender when he wants to be, while the latter has been a standout on that end all season, but neither stands taller than 6’4’’.
At 6’8’’, the height difference should work in Tatum’s favor. It’s a safe bet that it will be moving forward for shots like these:
Conversely, Brooklyn’s size bothered Tatum, as he shot a combined 2-of-7 when guarded by Durant, Jeff Green, and Blake Griffin.
No Net guarded Tatum more than Durant, whose defense has significantly improved in the last handful of years. Though his mobility may have taken a dip after tearing his Achilles, KD’s 7’5’’ wingspan will always ensure he’s one of the toughest players to hit a shot over, which Tatum learned the hard way.
As potent a scorer as he is, Boston is asking a lot of Tatum to create for himself against Durant’s length, especially at the free throw line, where there’s only so much room to create space.
Stevens would be better served testing Durant’s mobility above the arc or running plays that switch guards onto his superstar and trust that Tatum will rediscover his touch in those situations. Stevens can also implement some off-ball action to get Tatum easy buckets as he did to stop an 8-0 Nets run in the second quarter.
“We just got to attack their switching better,” Stevens said. “They’ve got a lot of long, athletic guys out there and prideful individual defenders and they know how to play. So we’ve gotta be better at manipulating actions to get what we want.”
Though they’re down 0-1, a seven-game series offers Boston luxuries the play-in didn’t. The Celtics can watch the film and learn from their mistakes to determine what tweaks can be made at the offensive end to ensure another stellar defensive effort — Brooklyn only scored 104 points, shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 8-of-34 on threes — isn’t wasted again.
“We’re gonna watch film,” Tatum said. “Obviously, we played really well in the first half. Certainly, some things we’re gonna have to change going forward. So we’re gonna watch film tomorrow (and) come back for the next game.”