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Jayson Tatum: turning a slow start into a masterpiece in Indiana

Generational players can score 30 and lead their team to a win even when it’s not initially their night.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers
Jayson Tatum has a knack for delivering with the game on the line even after shooting poorly.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Some nights, Jayson Tatum is the best player on the floor by a landslide. The game looks so easy, like he’s playing a different sport than everyone else, and he piles up points in a hurry.

Other nights, when his shot isn’t falling, he looks surprisingly human and has to work for everything. He oftentimes needs a full half to get in a rhythm offensively, but once he does, watch out.

To me, those off nights where he somehow ends up with, say, 31 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists – like he did Thursday in the Celtics’ 142-138 overtime win over the Pacers – are even more impressive than the hot-shooting outbursts. He’s finding ways to be effective even during games that don’t start out in his favor.

Scoring 55 points in an All-Star Game with no defense is nice, but playing your best basketball in overtime against a pesky opponent that won’t relent is more important.

He’s had many games where you’re scratching your head watching him play, then you look up and he has 30. Against the Lakers in late January, for instance, he was off most of the way (8-for-25) but ended up dropping 30 in a 125-121 overtime win. In a signature overtime victory over the Warriors, he shot 9-of-27, but racked up 34 points, 19 boards and 6 assists.

Tatum, who leads the NBA in real plus-minus by a significant margin, has developed a knack for determining what the game needs and providing it – especially in the second half.

Here’s a closer look:

1st quarter: 7.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 44.8 FG%, 32.9 3PT%
2nd quarter: 7.6 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 43.7 FG%, 28.5 3PT%
3rd quarter: 9.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 51.6 FG%, 46.9 3PT%
4th quarter: 6.3 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 45.5 FG%, 34.7 3PT%

He plays some of his best ball in the third quarter, and he shoots a higher percentage in the fourth than he does in the first half. That last part is particularly significant; when the defense improves, so does he. Tatum often sets the tone in the second half and helps the Celtics either remain in front or build a lead.

Now, of course, the next step is limiting those slow starts as much as possible, but one thing at a time.

In a game like Thursday’s, where his shot is mostly off, he deserves credit for staying aggressive and attacking the rim. Tatum has taken at least 10 free throws in nine of the Celtics’ last 15 games.

He’s averaging 8.6 free throw attempts this season – by far a career-high. His next closest came last year, when he got there 6.2 times a night. Through 56 games this season, Tatum has already made 418 free throws and attempted 483. Those are both career-highs, and it’s still February. Finding a way to help himself helps the team immensely.

Tatum had his usual third-quarter flurry against Indiana, when he scored inside, added an and-one, hit a 10-footer and added a layup – all in a span of four minutes, and all near the basket.

He buried a 3 early in the fourth, hit another a few minutes later, added two free throws, then dove on the floor for a loose ball like his life depended on it. Even when the play was dead, Tatum cradled that ball like it was the most important thing in the world (besides Deuce, of course).

In overtime, Tatum found Marcus Smart for two buckets and Malcolm Brogdon for another. No hero ball necessary. The Celtics are stacked, and he simply made the right read and trusted his teammates. He then hit two free throws and provided another excellent hustle play to tip a putback in and essentially seal the win.

“It was either I left all my shooting in Utah or still drunk from vacation,” Tatum said after the game. “That’s how I played tonight. But man, a good stat line, but really not a really good game. For one, glad we won. Just tried to find ways to make plays on both ends just so we could win.”

Great players can score 30 when they’re hitting everything. Generational players can score 30 and lead their team to a win even when it’s not initially their night. Tatum is starting to find himself in that second category more often than not, and that’s a scary thought for the rest of the league.

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