Jayson Tatum is angry.
He knows the Celtics should have won the championship after nearly jumping out to a 3-1 series lead in the Finals. He knows he didn’t play his best when it mattered most. He knows he’s capable of more than what he showed against the Warriors.
It’s easy to tell how much last year is still fueling him as he dominates at an MVP level this season. He’s playing with more emotion, more conviction and more purpose than ever before. Every game, he acts as though the opponent wronged him in some way and he needs to show them who’s boss.
The most important and impressive part, though, is that, as angry as Tatum is playing, he’s also playing under control. He’s not trying to do too much and is letting the game come to him while also taking it over. That’s extremely difficult to do, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
It can be easy in sports to get so wrapped up in redemption that you forget how important composure is toward reaching that goal. Tatum has mastered that balance so far this season and is channeling his frustration in the right way.
It started in game one, when he openly admitted how much last year’s Finals loss stung and stuck with him. While it’s somewhat implied that it pained him, hearing him say it out loud was a reminder of how much he cares about his craft. He didn’t always show it early in his career, but it was always there. It took heartbreak to bring it to the forefront.
“Everywhere I went, somebody mentions, ‘good job in the Finals. Next year. You guys did well,’” Tatum said. “They mean it in a good way, but it’s just a reminder that we lost ... It’s Opening Night, one team is getting a ring and we’re not — that kept me up last night.”
Tatum’s childhood babysitter, Bradley Beal, told Heavy Sports’ Steve Bulpett that Tatum “definitely took it to heart.”
“I know when we did talk about it, he was very frustrated,” Beal told Bulpett. “It’s just motivation now. It’s motivation for him to come out and do what he’s been doing for these first games.”
Beal told Bulpett that Tatum genuinely believes he’s the best player on the floor in every game he plays. He improves his skill set every offseason, but Beal has noticed another area of improvement as well this year.
“He’s always going to continue to expand. But it’s his mentality,” Beal told Bulpett. “As you can see, his mental approach and his aggression in the game is way different this year.”
Tatum has an unmistakable swagger at the moment. He’s no longer a reserved 19-year-old blending in with his teammates, but rather a confident, vocal 24-year-old who leads not just with his actions, but also with his voice.
Look at this clip here. As he helps finish off the Grizzlies in style, he makes sure the fans know this is his house, not Ja Morant’s. He wouldn’t have done this early in his career, but now he’s not bashful. No one’s asking him to be Kevin Garnett, but he’s much more assertive and boisterous than before and is making his presence felt.
When you see your best player that invested, it’s impossible as a teammate not to follow suit. Tatum set the tone with 35 points that night against the 76ers, and he hasn’t slowed down since.
He’s averaging 30.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.4 blocks and 0.8 steals per game – while shooting 49.7 percent from the floor, 36.3 percent from distance and 89.2 percent from the line – and is playing some of the best ball of his career.
“I don’t think I’ve necessarily started this well to start a season out,” Tatum said. “ ... I’m just getting older and understanding the game a little bit better than I did a few years ago, probably.”
Perhaps the most impressive stat is that he’s getting to the line a career-high 8.3 times per game. He’s made 78 free throws, which puts him fourth in the league behind DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant and Luka Doncic.
Tatum’s improved finishing ability was on display in game one, and there’s enough of a sample size now to know it’s not a fluke. He’s shooting 77.4 percent from less than five feet, up from 65.8 and 65.9 percent the past two years and 55.4 percent in 2019-20.
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This is a grown man who simply isn’t taking no for an answer. He’s ruthlessly attacking the basket, and he has that look in his eyes that Paul Pierce and David Ortiz used to have, the “you can’t stop me” look that the truly great ones have.
Tatum is actually attempting fewer shots then he has the past few years, but his 3-point attempts are up. While his mid-range game is still there when he needs it, his shot selection has improved significantly.
His defense has also been outstanding. That 1.4 blocks per game number is quite impressive. The undersized Celtics have needed him to play big, and he’s consistently done so throughout the season. He’s also committing just 1.8 fouls per game – his lowest total ever – while playing a career-high 36.5 minutes a night.
Tatum silenced Morant whenever he got the chance Monday, holding him scoreless on four shots. It wasn’t a coincidence that he found himself sticking Morant with the stakes magnified.
Ja Morant when defended by Jayson Tatum last night: 0-4 FG, 2 BLK, 0 PTS.— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) November 8, 2022
Limited matchup time but Tatum took on the challenge late, continuing a trend of elevating his defense in late-game situations this season.
“I say it all the time, trying to impact winning on both ends,” Tatum said. “Especially playing against other really great, good, talented players. It’s all about competing and taking on that challenge within the game plan. That’s what I try to do on a nightly basis.”
He’s doing everything the Celtics need while also not pressing or trying to do too much. It’s only been 10 games, but it feels like this relentless yet poised version of Tatum is here to stay.