Jayson Tatum is the man of the moment, and rightfully so. It’s not every day that you sink the game-winning bucket on the Opening Night of the playoffs, against a team fielding two elite superstars. That’s what Tatum does though — he thrives in the big moments, and on Sunday night, he added another signature moment that will be used to describe his budding legacy.
We’re all going to remember that shot. How Tatum turned into a ballerina with the sweetest of pirouettes, and most importantly, we will never forget the irony of Kyrie Irving being the one to get cooked on the final possession.
But to only remember the final shot is to discredit all the work Tatum had done throughout the game because the Brooklyn Nets sure didn’t make life easy for him. Primary options get the brunt of a team's defensive plan, this much we know, but the Brooklyn Nets were unrelenting in how they guarded Boston’s crown jewel and ensured their defense remained fluid to try and limit Tatum’s impact on the game — not that it did them much good.
While on the floor, the St Louis native faced nine different defenders, with Kevin Durant and Nicolas Claxton being the primary options Brooklyn sent his way. Tatum got the best of both of those battles, as he flitted between high-level playmaker and elite scorer, punishing the defense in any way he possibly could. Of course, the Nets didn’t stick to man-to-man coverage, they ensured that doubles, switches, hedges, and all of that good stuff were sent Tatum’s way as consistently as possible. Let’s take a look at how Tatum navigated the Nets' defensive game plan in Game 1.
Dealing with size
For all of the Nets' defensive shortcomings, they do boast some considerable size in the frontcourt, and they made sure to show Tatum a lot of it whenever he got on the ball. As you would expect, Brooklyn tasked the 6’10’’ Kevin Durant with most of the on-ball duties to begin the game, with the team relying on help defense to pressure Tatum on drives or pick-and-rolls.
In the above play, you can see Durant guarding the Celtics All-Star in an off-ball capacity before getting caught up on a screen. Seth Curry does a good job of stunting towards Tatum on the perimeter, slowing him down just enough for Durant to get back in the play and pick his man back up. Watch how Curry then navigates the floor to try and get his body between the rim and Tatum on the drive, with Durant contesting in the rearview.
It was that kind of night for Tatum, where bodies were flying at him from all angles, and enormous wingspans were swiping at him from behind. The above play ended in a block, so it’s safe to say that Brooklyn’s initial game plan was paying dividends.
As the game wore on, the Duke product became immune to the additional pressure in man-to-man situations, and we slowly saw Tatum start to heat up.
Tatum slaloms through four different defenders in this possession, and once again did a fine job of beating Durant off the dribble following a pick-and-roll action, keeping the superstar on his hip on his way towards the basket. NBA Stat tracking data has Durant listed as guarding Tatum for 9:12 minutes and a total of 47.8 partial possessions, in that time, Tatum scored 9 points while the Celtics drained 52 as a team.
The problem with throwing size and length at Tatum in straight man-to-man coverage, even when you have guys digging and stunting at him, is that his handle is far too developed for him to not create pockets of space. Tatum is a scorer of the highest form and will attack you in any way he can and as often as he can. It wasn’t a surprise that Brooklyn failed to limit his chances by simply throwing size his way.
Size + Switching
When one long body isn’t enough to stop someone, send two long bodies. That should work, right?
As the game wore on, the Nets began switching more of the Celtics' perimeter pick-and-roll actions, swapping out Durant for Claxton, ensuring that Tatum wasn’t getting size mismatches for him to bully onto the post.
Claxton is one of the more athletically gifted players in the NBA and is certainly the most gifted within the Brooklyn rotation. So, the train of thought was clear: switch Durant for Claxton, have Durant stunt or rotate as a helper, and allow Claxton to pressure the rock whenever Tatum goes to shoot. Logically, this plan was sound. In practice, it gave Tatum a wider scope to generate scoring opportunities.
Of course, Claxton wasn’t always on the floor. In fact, NBA Stats has tracked the Nets center as sharing the floor with Boston’s superstar for just 28.6% of their available minutes, so there was plenty of time that Brooklyn had to get creative. One of the ways Steve Nash innovated was to put Andre Drummond up to touch on screening actions involving the budding superstar, with the hope being that Drummond’s size would act as a deterrent for any penetration off the dribble.
Placing Drummond at the level of the screen allowed him to soft-show onto Tatum, forcing him away from the middle of the floor, and as such, limiting his opportunities to pressure the rim. By this point, it was clear Brooklyn was concerned about Tatum’s ability to score off the drive, and would live with him shooting tightly contested threes, but that allowed the three-time All-Star to begin manipulating Durant’s coverage.
As you can see in the above clip, Tatum fakes the drive before flowing into his patented step-back jumper, selling it just enough to create shooting space before Durant closes the airspace. Bucket.
Playmaking out of traps
If we’re being honest, the Nets didn’t double Tatum nearly as much as most of us were expecting, and certainly not as aggressively as they should have. In part, that’s a testament to the scoring threats throughout the Celtics roster, but most importantly, it’s because Tatum smoked the Nets' early trap system with numerous high-level passes for scoring opportunities.
There were always multiple Nets in Tatum’s vicinity, but they rarely committed two to the ball. But, in the above instance, the Nets do send two at Tatum, and it results in it a quickfire pass for Al Horford in the paint. The concern will always be that committing two onto Tatum leaves room for Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart to get free, at which point the defense is in scramble mode, and a bucket is likely to come.
As such, you can totally understand why Brooklyn went for a more cautious style of defense, with bodies around Tatum but not committing to the trap. Here’s an example of what I mean, and yes, the 6’8’’ wing still cooks the coverage with a smart passing read.
Brooklyn has two players around Tatum, but they choose not to commit to a trap. Instead, they pinch to apply pressure but ensure they’re positioned to close out on a shooter if Tatum makes a read.
This is why so many people believed that Tatum's development as a playmaker was vital to his development as a star. You can’t over-commit on a player who can hurt you with his passing, the same as you can under-commit to somebody that’s going to keep knocking shots down given a glimmer of space - and now we’re seeing the fruits of Tatum’s labor come to the forefront.
Brooklyn’s defense will evolve
No matter how well Tatum handled Brooklyn’s defensive coverages, we have to remember that this was just Game 1 of a series that many ticketed to go six or seven. The Nets are going to alter their defensive schemes, and add new systems - they’re not going to be stagnant in how they look to limit Tatum’s impact on the offensive end. Perhaps we see different matchups, lineups, or more aggressive double-teams on the catch.
Or maybe Brooklyn decide to incorporate some additional zone coverages - especially during non-Tatum minutes. After all, we’re talking about Tatum being Boston’s answer to Kevin Durant, and we’ve already heard a ton about how the Celtics need to take advantage of the Nets' non-Durant minutes, so why wouldn’t they want to capitalize on Boston’s non-Tatum minutes?
With a few days until Game 2, both coaching staff are going to get the opportunity to dive into the film and build out their approach to the coming game. Still, we’re seeing an evolution happening in front of our eyes, and with how Tatum is attacking a multitude of coverages, the Nets are going to have some difficult questions to answer in the coming days.