It’s that time again — CelticsBlog’s Player of the Week. We’re discussing the week of February 28 this time around, which means we have three games up for discussion, all wins: Tuesday against the Hawks, Thursday against the Grizzlies and Sunday against the Nets.
Our usual refresher: “Player of the Week” does not necessarily translate to “Best Player of the Week.” The idea of this award is to highlight difference-makers from the past week’s games, and to be honest, a strict focus on “best” would lead to this award pinballing back and forth between Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They’re the team’s star players, and the most important and impactful players on the court even on their worst shooting nights.
Repeatedly writing about those two, while deserved, would be just a little bit less fun. For that reason, we’re going to broaden our standards a little bit to introduce a little more diversity in the results. The two are eligible for the award, of course, but the bar for them is just a little bit higher.
Of course, for the second consecutive week, this isn’t a necessary disclaimer, for reasons that should be obvious.
CelticsBlog Player of the Week #5: Jayson Tatum
3 GP, 40 MPG, 41 PPG, 52% FG, 40% 3PT, 84% FT, 6 RPG, 5 APG, +33
Yeah, you could call that clearing the bar. Apologies to Al Horford, who had an outstanding week and looked very much like his younger self, but there isn’t really a choice to be made here. This was Jayson Tatum’s week.
Tatum has been hanging around the “honorable mention” category of our weekly awards since the beginning, but there’s always been a snag that just held him up compared to other options — a dud shooting performance, or a lack of signature moments. I wanted his first appearance in this column to be a special one; the kind of red hot week that we’ve seen him rattle off time and time again.
Well, here’s what that week looks like. That’s not a typo up there — he averaged 41 points across these three games. This was another perfect week for the Celtics, and Tatum was quite emphatically the biggest reason why. This was no cakewalk, either; the Celtics faced down three opponents with big time talent and playoff aspirations, and they did so with Jaylen Brown either out or less than 100% the whole time.
The eye test, such as it is, supports Tatum here too. In terms of optics, this was a week where Tatum squared up against a gauntlet of opposing superstars. He faced off against Atlanta’s Trae Young, Memphis’ Ja Morant and Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant, and he was the best player on the court in all three instances. That’s no small accomplishment.
The week kicked off with Tuesday’s contest against Young and the Hawks. Coming off a disappointing drubbing at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, there was a bit of unease in the air as the Celtics fell behind in the first half. Young was cooking, with 22 first half points to lead Atlanta to a 14-point halftime advantage. Was this Celtics team returning to its early season ways?
Well, no. The third quarter happened.
The Celtics took the Hawks to task, outscoring them 31-13 in the quarter. Right in the mix of it was Tatum, who scored 11 of his 33 points on the evening in the third. He also dished seven assists on the evening, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore, but it’s fun to think about how seamlessly he’s moved into “seven assists seems like a normal amount for him to have” territory. His growth as a playmaker has been a joy to watch.
Next up came the most anticipated game of the week: Thursday’s matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies. Ja Morant’s team has been among the most exciting in basketball — plucky upstarts and nightly highlight machines that have battled their way to an unprecedented spot as the second seed in the Western Conference as of this writing. The hype for this game was huge, especially after it got flexed into the Thursday night national TV slot.
It didn’t disappoint. Once again, the Celtics rode a big third quarter to a quality win. The Tatum-Morant duel was another KO by Tatum, who scored 37 — including 21 in a massive fourth quarter — and outshined a relatively inefficient 38 from Morant. Across the Celtics’ 2022 surge, this might be the most impressive win they scored in terms of the quality of their opponent.
What’s notable about this performance is how much of Tatum’s work came inside the arc. He only connected on two of his seven three-point attempts on the evening, and instead did most of his damage at the rim and at the free throw line. I find the common “he just needs to get downhill,” refrain to be a bit of an oversimplification when it comes to Tatum, given how talented he is as a shot creator. But it’s certainly fun to watch when he decides he’s going to obliterate a team at the rim.
The free throw shooting deserves a mention here, as well. He attempted 32 free throws across these three games, easily his best mark across any three-game stretch all year. He’s seeking out more contact and getting more calls, and those are both very good omens for the Celtics’ offense.
Finally, we get to the big one. You already know which one I mean.
Fifty four points. A duel with Durant. A spot alongside Larry Bird in the Celtics’ record books. Tatum’s performance against the Nets was simply transcendent.
This was not the same Nets team the Celtics beat up on twice in February. Durant returned to Brooklyn’s lineup on Thursday and immediately settled into his customarily elite form, and the road trip to Boston meant that Kyrie Irving was available to take the floor as well. The Celtics returned Brown to their starting lineup, but it was a quieter outing for him, as he didn’t necessarily seem to be at 100% coming off his sprained ankle.
The result was a lot of Tatum. The Celtics turned to him every time the game threatened to get out of hand, and every time, he delivered. Trailing at halftime, he opened the third quarter with a 10-point flurry. Late in the third, with the Nets stretching a lead, he scored six points of a Celtics 8-0 run. In a one possession game in the closing minutes, it was Tatum with three straight scoring possessions to keep the Celtics ahead. He was simply everywhere.
The icing on the cake? Despite the massive usage, he turned the ball over just twice all afternoon. A bona fide masterpiece of a game, and the perfect capstone for a great week of basketball.
Quite the plot twist that, in a matchup against Kyrie Irving — one of the most creative dribblers in NBA history — it was Jayson Tatum who pulled out the most unfathomable dribble move of the day.
So many facets of Tatum’s game have grown this season, but perhaps none have come as far as his handle. He’s never really been an elite dribbler, in part due to his size and top-heavy frame. But it’s a weakness no more; this is the most confident and comfortable Tatum has ever been when it comes to putting the ball on the floor, and it’s paid dividends in enhancing his ability to get to the rim.
Just look at where the ball is! The fact that he’s able to bring this back to his left hand through that double team is just sensational.
And listen to that voice crack from Mark Jones on the call! That’s the sign of a special play, right there.
That’s gonna do it for this edition of the CelticsBlog Player of the Week, which was probably the most fun one to write thus far. Next week is another three game week, and the degree of difficulty isn’t diminishing all that much. Wednesday, the Celtics travel to Charlotte to face off with the 8-seeded Hornets. After that, they’ll return to Boston on Friday to host the Detroit Pistons, who seemingly play like the best version of themselves specifically when facing the Celtics. Finally, they’ll host Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks in another Sunday afternoon, nationally televised affair.
Who do you think will step up and claim our sixth Player of the Week award? Sound off in the comments with your predictions.