Since the closing years of the Brad Stevens era, Jayson Tatum has been tasked with improving his ability to create for others. The underlying idea is that with Tatum’s significant scoring gravity, teams will often help off others in order to send double-teams toward one of the best scorers in the NBA.
For Tatum, one of the best counters he can have in his toolbox is being able to read the double-team and make a play out of it, be it driving the gap between the two defenders, calling for a screen, or, better still, passing to the open man as the defense shifts over to compensate for the aggressive coverage.
It hasn’t always been pretty. Heck, even now, Tatum is prone to high-turnover games, as he continually deals with an incredible amount of defensive attention and is often scanning the court, waiting for the ‘right play’ to appear. Yet, with increasing regularity, Tatum has begun to make some outstanding passes when two defenders hone in on him, and on Tuesday, we got to witness one of those passes carve open the Atlanta Hawks.
This is the play in question, one of those moments where you sit there and wonder, ‘how did he see that?’ Quite frankly, most of us watching from home probably never caught Al Horford open in the strong side corner on the first watch, and he certainly wasn’t unchecked at the start of the action. So, what happened?
As Tatum came down the strong side baseline, Bogdan Bogdanovic helped off his man to double on Tatum. As this happened, Horford’s man rotated to pick up the open man on the perimeter, leaving Trae Young (of all people) splitting the difference between Horford and Derrick White, who was operating in the dunker spot.
Almost instantaneously, Tatum registers that Horford is open, and the scoop pass is fired on time and on target. An easy three follows, and the Celtics register a bucket. However, can we appreciate that this pass looked incredibly difficult from a birds eye view, so to have seen that unfold at the level of play, and make that pass with such ease, is a ridiculous leap in passing ability from one of the best scorers in the NBA at present?
Furthermore, this wasn’t the only cross-court pass out of a double team that we saw from Tatum during the game against the Hawks. In fact, he had hit a similar, yet less impressive one late in the third quarter, this time finding Jaylen Brown.
This time, it was Bogdanovic that rotated over as he looked to fill and put an additional body on Robert Williams as he relocated to the weak side. In fairness, Bogdanovic’s help was only momentary, but that was all Tatum needed to spot the passing opportunity and take advantage.
We often hear of the game slowing down for players after multiple years in the league, and I have written about how that is often perceived as “processing speed.” Call it whatever you want. The fact is, Tatum’s ability to spot passes in traffic and get them to their destination despite the team’s throwing size, length, and significant pressure at him on a nightly basis, is a clear indicator of his genuine improvement as a facilitator.
Given the difficult postseason run that potentially awaits Tatum and the Celtics, knowing that he’s now more than capable of punishing defenses with his passing skills, regardless of what teams throw at him, should give Joe Mazzulla the confidence to keep empowering him to make decisions with the ball in his hands — turnovers or not.
Of course, this isn’t a new development; Tatum has been improving this area of his game for years at this point. Still, that dime to Horford was sensational given the degree of difficulty, as was yet another highlight moment in the All-Star’s young career.