The Boston Celtics are the best offensive team in the league - a complete 180 from last season. They’re averaging more points than any other team (120.4), have the best true shooting percentage in the league (60.9%), and Jayson Tatum is putting up career-high scoring numbers (31.1 PPG) as the MVP frontrunner.
Tatum has been the driving force of Boston’s elite offense, but that’s not going to win him MVP. There are currently seven players averaging 30 points, and five are on teams that are .500 or better. Scoring is at an all-time high this year. Tatum has been a stud amongst studs.
But it’s his defense that will stand out among the pack.
The Celtics have played Tatum in a bunch of different defensive roles, and he’s managed to be the Celtics’ best rim protector in most of them. His scoring numbers may be the best of his career, but so are his block numbers (1.4 per game). Tatum is tied for 16th in the league in blocks, on par with players such as Evan Mobley, Kristaps Porzingis, and Jarrett Allen. While Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Luke Kornet have still handled the majority of the work guarding big men, Tatum has still yielded the best block numbers. This has been because of his ability to leverage his height and length against shorter guards and wings, as well as his success in the off-ball free safety role that earned Robert Williams Second Team All-Defense honors last season.
Tatum is slowly mastering the art of the chase-down block, too. He purposefully puts himself a step behind the offensive player in order to gain a better position to block their shot. It’s something that Williams perfected last year, and Derrick White has also taken a liking to it this season.
Watch Tatum follow Saddiq Bey on this drive. Bey gets a quick first step, but instead of scrambling to catch up, Tatum bides his time and jumps at the perfect moment to block the layup attempt.
It’s one thing to stay with Bey, but it’s another to take down Ja Morant at the rim. Tatum employs a similar “bide your time” tactic on this play.
Morant comes speeding down the court with a full head of steam, and the only thing in between him and a bucket is Tatum. But while Tatum could use the rule of verticality to go up and contest Morant, he knows that the Memphis Grizzlies guard is one of the best in the game when it comes to finishing at the rim. Instead, Tatum waits and gets a perfectly timed block from behind.
It’s hard to fully appreciate the degree of difficulty. Yes, Tatum manages to get the block, but the defensive positioning that allowed him to get there was equally as impressive. He manages to cut off the paint, force Morant to go to his left hand, and then precisely times the challenge.
On top of his newfound usage of the delayed block attempt, Tatum has also been utilized in the “free safety” role that Williams played last year. I wrote about this idea before the season, and while it has been a consistent playstyle for the Celtics, Tatum has found success in the role at times.
He’s been an extremely aware off-ball defender, which is the primary requirement when playing the “free safety” role, even when he’s not specifically playing the role.
Take this play against the Cleveland Cavaliers, for example. Tatum isn’t hanging out in the corner, per se, but he switches off of the main ball-handler, pushing Marcus Smart and Grant Williams up top to play on the ball. In turn, he stays on the weak side and lays in wait.
Once Kevin Love gets the ball on the drive, Tatum is able to slide over, challenge him at the rim, and record the block.
Tatum has been thriving in this role all season long. Look at this play against the Chicago Bulls. Nothing actually happens involving Tatum, but it’s a perfect example of Tatum staying ready in the free safety role.
He’s sitting in the corner marking Ayo Dosunmu. As soon as Nikola Vucevic starts to post-up Derrick White, he begins to shift over, preparing to contest the shot. Instead, the play results in a Zach LaVine three-point shot.
Blocks are obviously a great stat, but it’s far from the only thing that determines what makes a great defender. They are just a good indicator of Tatum’s defensive progression. In addition to becoming the Celtics’ top rim protector, Tatum has also taken on the challenge of guarding some of the best players in the league.
While his height and wingspan allow him to play great interior defense, he’s also one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, too.
In Boston’s win over Memphis, Tatum asked to guard Morant ( as did the rest of the team) down the stretch of the game. Morant is one of the quickest, shiftiest guards in the league. And while the following clip ends in a block, it’s all the work Tatum did before the result that should be acknowledged.
Tatum gets switched onto Morant, gets down into his stance. Even after Morant gets him a little off balance, he stays engaged. The Celtics star keeps one pivot foot down at all times, allowing him to adjust to Morant’s move and sneak in for a block.
This season, Tatum has held Morant to 0-of-4 shooting in 2:03 of matchup time, LaVine to 0-of-3 shooting in 3:33 of matchup time, and Bradley Beal to 0-of-3 shooting in 3:34 of matchup time, among others.
He’s also done a great job of stalking ball handlers and reading the passing lanes, averaging 0.9 steals per contest. Look at this play from the season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers. James Harden brings the ball up the court and immediately looks to Joel Embiid in the post, as he has Noah Vonleh on him. Tatum, who is moving toward the corner, never takes his eyes off Harden on the break. As soon as the 76ers point guard makes a motion to pass, Tatum sprints in front of Embiid and nabs the steal.
Whether he’s been playing on or off the ball, Tatum has been an elite defender this year. He’s always been one of the best wing defenders in the league, but so far this year, he’s stepped things up a notch. And in Williams’ absence, the Celtics have needed it in a big way.
Despite being the team’s primary offensive option and a top 10 scorer in the NBA, Tatum has been the Celtics’ defensive anchor this season. And that’s why he’s going to stand out in the MVP race.