In the second half of last season, Jayson Tatum emerged as an MVP candidate. He led the Boston Celtics on a run to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career and shot extremely well from three-point range.
However, the one issue that kept popping up was his interior finishing. He would drive into the paint, but once he got there, he couldn’t finish. Here are Tatum’s stats from last year:
- Regular season: 11.4 drives/game, 48.8% FG
- Playoffs: 14.1 drives/game, 38.3% FG
- Regular season: 68.0% FG (restricted area), 40.3% FG (paint non-RA)
- Playoffs: 60.2% FG (restricted area), 32.2% FG (paint non-RA)
Tatum’s three-point attempts went down in the playoffs as he tried to be more aggressive, but it ended up hurting him rather than helping him. He struggled to make the right decisions and often over-dribbled into a bad shot.
However, he’s been much smarter with the basketball this year, and in turn, his efficiency has gone through the roof.
Through Boston’s first few games of the season, Tatum has made a noticeable effort to get inside and finish around the rim. But it’s less about the quantity of drives and more about the quality. In fact, Tatum is driving less per game than last year right now. The big difference? He’s much more efficient.
- 2022-23: 9.8 drives/game, 50.0% FG
- 2022-23: 75.9% FG (restricted area), 50.0% FG (paint non-RA)
While his field goal percentage on drives may not have taken a massive jump, he’s been much more decisive and has employed a wider variety of moves. This has led to a major jump in field goal percentage in the paint. Plus, he’s turning the ball over just 0.3 times per drive this year, compared to 0.8 last season (1.2 in the playoffs).
One of the most important moves Tatum has added to his arsenal this year is the floater. He’s been seeking it out on drives, which adds a whole new element to his game.
This play against the Miami Heat is a prime example. Tatum attacks the smaller defender, Gabe Vincent, off the dribble and quickly switches directions with a slick behind-the-back move to avoid Jimmy Butler’s pressure. Then, rather than running into Bam Adebayo and hoping for a foul, he pulls up and sinks a floater over the perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Tatum was able to navigate through three defenders by getting to his spot and elevating. Being able to effectively drain floaters from inside the paint will help him get easier looks rather than settling for turnaround jumpers and trying to draw fouls.
This is the sort of drive Tatum would end up with last season. He gets not one but two Heat defenders up in the air, but instead of planting his foot and using a floater, he drives directly into the defender (which happens to be Adebayo again) and flails his arms in an attempt to get a foul call.
Adebayo was all the way back in the restricted area and gave Tatum a ton of space to work with. But all the Celtics star ended up with was an awkward turnaround layup attempt.
In addition to his floater, Tatum has also improved at playing through contact. His trainer, Drew Hanlen, spoke about it multiple times this offseason, saying that it was an emphasis for Tatum when training this summer.
“The best can always find ways to get better, so that’s what we did,” Hanlen told Jared Weiss of The Athletic. “He couldn’t finish, so we worked on finishing. Wasn’t great driving through contact, so we worked on that. We just wanted to get him back into the mid-post, midrange area where he felt comfortable using those shots when needed.”
Check out this drive on Orlando Magic forward Chuma Okeke. Tatum sees the defender in front of him, but instead of breaking out an elaborate dribble package or spinning into the lane, he drives directly through Okeke.
He grabs the ball tightly with two hands to ensure he doesn’t turn it over and then raises up as soon as he sees Okeke’s hands come down ever so slightly. Last year, Tatum would often try to go around contact or jump into it at the wrong time.
Watch the way Tatum contorts his body on this layup attempt in order to avoid contact.
Obviously, driving into Draymond Green is a bit different than driving into Okeke, but Tatum is an MVP candidate. He’s a top-10 player in the NBA and should feel comfortable absorbing contact through any player. And so far this year, it’s looking like he’s realized that.
Another great example is this video of Tatum driving on Stephen Curry.
Tatum gets Curry in the air and moves past him, but instead of committing to going through the Golden State Warriors star, he drifts away from him and chucks the ball toward the rim. The result of the play is a haphazard attempt at drawing a foul and an ugly shot. If Tatum had driven at Curry with force and made a legitimate attempt to play through contact, not only would it have resulted in a better shot, but he also would have had a better chance at getting a foul call.
But while driving to the hoop is a crucial part of Tatum’s game and one he’s seemingly improved upon tenfold, the main reason his interior finishing has been so much better this season is that he’s getting so many easy looks by cutting off the ball.
Last season, Tatum attempted 0.8 field goals per game off of cuts, and that number stayed the same during the playoffs. This year, it’s jumped up to 2.3 per game, and his cutting percentage is up from 3.8% to 11.0%.
Watch Tatum move off the ball here with James Harden on him. Grant Williams and Jaylen Brown act as if they’re going to set a double screen, so Harden immediately motions for Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker to step up. Instead, Tatum takes a quick jab step toward the three-point line to fake Harden out and then immediately cuts in toward the basket. Marcus Smart makes a picture perfect pass to finish off the play.
Because Tatum is such a threat from behind the three-point line, opposing players have to respect him when he makes a move toward the perimeter. In this case, Tatum uses that to his advantage. He completely fools the Philadelphia 76ers’ defense, which isn’t a tactic he used too much last year.
Here’s a very similar play from the NBA Finals last year. Tatum and Smart are running a two-man game in the corner, but instead of faking toward the perimeter and cutting toward the hoop, Tatum does the opposite. He fakes as if he’s going to cut inside and instead runs out to the three-point line.
If he had used a similar move to the one that fooled Harden, he would have been left with a one-on-one against Kevon Looney at the rim. But instead, the play ends up with a tightly contested shot at the rim with multiple defenders on him.
Boston’s loss against the Chicago Bulls was the first sign of weakness for their offense, but Tatum still utilized the same changes. In the first quarter, he got six easy points off of well-timed cuts. Then later in the game, when it seemed as though the Celtics couldn’t score, Tatum was still getting mostly good looks.
Sure, there are going to be times when Tatum takes a three after dribbling for 10 seconds. He’s going to try to draw a few fouls. But for the most part, the changes Tatum made this summer are doing wonders, and his 55.6% field goal percentage is up from 45.3% last year because of it.
It’s only been four games, so all this may seem like an overreaction, but Tatum has made some major changes to the way he approaches offense. And they don’t seem like the type of changes that are going to go away overnight. Expect a long season of floaters, playing through contact, and cutting for Tatum - all things that will help him flourish.
(I really hope someone understood the Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives reference in the title. I thought it was clever.)