Fewer than 3,000 fans, coaches, players and media members watched Jayson Tatum lead a 32-point comeback against the Spurs with 60 points before the NBA’s COVID restrictions waned. It felt important, a moment in an otherwise frustrating year. The energy — between raucous halftime boos that transitioned into stunned anticipation of history — elevated every Tatum basket into a performance that arguably surpassed Bird’s 1985 record in both consequence (in a three-point win) and dominance.
Tatum shot 20-of-37 that night (Bird 22-of-36), played 45 minutes (Bird 43) and dished five assists while committing an unfathomable zero turnovers. That performance would somehow have to compete for consideration as his best game all season. He scored 50 points four times (most in the NBA), all wins, including a key play-in victory over the Wizards, before topping Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving in Game 3.
Tatum became the NBA’s most dangerous scorer at 23. He honed in on expanding his shooting range, simplified his movements and went to the rim more often. Referees rewarded his renewed approach with droves of free throws later in the season, while his shooting efficiency there (86.8% on 5.3 attempts) and everywhere else (53% eFG%) rendered him unstoppable in single coverage, even when Durant assumed responsibility in the Brooklyn series.
Tatum’s scoring won’t necessarily dictate his ability to return Boston to contention. His passing will. We saw spurts of greatness in that area again in 2020-21. For all Tatum accomplished, the Celtics need more from their floor general.
“My playmaking ability,” Tatum said last preseason, identifying where he needed to progress. “I kind of felt like it was trending that way during the playoffs, just seeing a lot more attention, a lot more double teams, blitzing, and just my ability to make plays and make the game easier for the guys around me. So just being more of a playmaker, getting other guys involved.”
Tatum surpassed Walker in touches this year, moving from third to second on the roster in time of possession per game (4.8 minutes). Only Jimmy Butler, LeBron James and Ben Simmons commanded more time among point forwards. He received more minutes on the ball per game than Julius Randle, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. All six of them ranked in the top-50 in assist percentage, while Tatum ranked 113th (19.6%).
Marcus Smart and Walker’s share of playmaking duties likely dug into Tatum’s total. His 1.61 assist-to-turnover rate still lagged behind his top competitors, despite being double teamed on more than 20 possessions per game, the most among non-guards this season. He averaged 0.3 assists per game to Aaron Nesmith, 0.4 to Payton Pritchard, 0.0 to Romeo Langford and 0.5 to Robert Williams. Only Williams saw a field goal percentage bump above other teammates on Tatum passes among the team’s young players, despite Tatum being the highest-share feeder of all those players except Langford.
“I’ve made strides every season,” Tatum said after Game 5. “I know there’s a lot of people out there that have their own opinions on how I should lead or my demeanor, things like that. The cool thing is, that doesn’t matter, I get to be myself and not really listen to how I should lead.”
That’s true. Tatum is essentially in his second season as a full-time playmaker after the departures of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Terry Rozier made that a new priority for him. At 18, Tatum flashed little more than short-roll secondary action at Duke, and now at 23 looks like he owns the potential to become an elite passer due in part to his scoring gravity. He even notched his first triple-double back in in April.
Unfortunately, the greater share of responsibility seemed to grind away at him physically. Tatum received one game off late in the year, as Brad Stevens asserted Boston wasn’t in standings position to sit key players, while others like Walker and Jaylen Brown exited the lineup consistently due to injuries. A COVID diagnosis only knocked out Tatum for five games thanks in part to postponements, though his return still felt sudden at 16 days compared to 26 for Tristan Thompson and 27 for Evan Fournier later.
Tatum needed to use an inhaler throughout the year after and complained of occasional windedness. We won’t know the long-term impact this year had on him and others, but in the short term it likely affected his ability to push the team’s pace and impact both sides of the floor consistently. A shorter offseason after the bubble run also limited the scope of Tatum’s improvement, as trainer Drew Hanlen emphasized fewer rather than many concepts in the shorter timespan.
“There’s two sides to it,” Hanlen told me in February, saying he looked horrible in the weeks after his return. “It is a lot harder to breath and get that second wind. The second part is mental side of it, they’re constantly telling you ‘let us know if anything is wrong.’ So every time that you feel your lungs or you feel a headache or whatever, you start overthinking and start multiplying the symptoms.”
Along with a larger offensive burden, Tatum and the Celtics regressed from an elite defensive season in 2020. It’s fair to expect more from a player who could reasonably become the best in basketball before long. Washington head coach Scott Brooks and others around league predicted he’ll win a MVP within the next few seasons, and that’ll require more than an elite scoring year and a seventh seed.
Finding teammates in the right spots consistently and raising his assist rates will prove to be a large part of that, as Nikola Jokic showed in his MVP season. Slashing turnovers, like the aimless toss to Terry Rozier in the back court that largely defined Boston’s season in April is important, too.
A team with facilitators and primary passers that could allow Tatum some off-ball action would help the team win, but with limited roster flexibility, it’s beneficial he goes through these ups-and-downs as a facilitator. It’ll force him to become one of those great point forwards entering his prime. LeBron. Pippen. Larry.
The greats all made their teammates better, and an inexperienced Celtics roster is calling on Tatum to do the same, along with forming a cohesive balance alongside a fellow star in Brown who showed the ability to match Tatum’s level numerous times in 2021.
“I’m not perfect,” Tatum said. “I’ve had a really, really good year individually. I wish we would’ve had a better year as a team. I still have a long way to go, and I think that’s the best part. There’s still a lot I can improve on in all areas.”