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Jayson Tatum continues January slump in loss to Hornets

After catching fire at the end of 2021, the Celtics All-Star hasn’t been able to regain that momentum after his second stint with COVID.

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Jayson Tatum is in a slump.

Heading into the holidays, the Celtics two-time All-Star was making a strong case for a third straight trip to the midseason classic. In December, Tatum averaged nearly 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists a game on 46/36/86 splits that culminated in an Eastern Conference Player of the Week nod just before Christmas. He outdueled Giannis Antetokounmpo in a thrashing of the defending champs with 42 points that included 7 for 13 from behind the arc.

But after a Christmas showdown where the Celtics nearly beat the Bucks for the third time this season (Tatum had a cool 25/9/4), he was placed in the league’s health and safety protocols with his second bout with COVID in less than a year.

His return has been rocky, especially compared to the tear he was on before the new year. Over the last nine games, the scoring is still there at 24 points per game, but his efficiency has dropped considerably. He’s making just 26.6% of his threes at a high volume and turning the ball over more in January than any other month this season.

Against the visiting Hornets on Wednesday night, Tatum might have had his worst game of 2022. He made just 5 of his 19 shots and missed all 7 three-pointers - many of them wide open.

“I don’t think Jayson is a guy you have to really worry about thinking about it too much. He comes out and takes the right shots,” head coach Ime Udoka said of Tatum’s cold night. “I like when he’s a little more aggressive getting downhill if the shots are not falling, but like I said, he’s 0-for-7 from 3 and probably 5 or 6 of them were wide open so he’s not going to pass those up regardless if the ball is going in or not.”

Tatum battled foul trouble all night. He picked up his third personal with over nine minutes to go in the first half and his fifth at the 5:41 mark in the 4th. That could have contributed to his lack of attack in the final frame. But despite his current slump, Udoka isn’t worried.

As a former player, Udoka understands that so much of the game is feel and if Tatum isn’t feeling it on a particular night, he should try to affect the game in different ways, primarily driving the ball and becoming a playmaker. “He can get to the basket pretty much at will, but he’s settling at times and trying to draw fouls. I’m telling him, ‘find your outlets. Go look to score and not to get fouled,’” Udoka said.

For Tatum’s teammates, they still believe in the 23-year-old and his ability to score and more importantly, lead this team. “I personally don’t worry about Jayson. He’s a scorer. We’re going to continue to encourage him to be aggressive, to play his game,” Al Horford said.

“There’s obviously a lot that he has to handle. He has to make sure that he’s passing the ball when he’s doubled. The ball’s in his hands a lot of the times. He has to shoot it at different times. All the attention of other teams is usually on him and Jaylen. He’ll continue to stay aggressive. I know he’ll continue to put in the work. I’m not worried about it.”

Tatum currently sits fourth in Eastern Conference All-Star frontcourt voting and would most likely be voted in by the coaches and players as on the NBA’s rising stars. However, he has played the third most minutes (1542) and taken the most shots (881) in the league despite that week away in the COVID protocol. Combine all that with last season’s compressed schedule plus his heavy involvement with Team USA’s gold medal run last summer and a rest in mid-February could help him make a final push in the final quarter of the regular season.