Great philosopher Harry Dunne once said, “just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this... and totally redeem yourself!”
Jayson Tatum went from goat to GOAT in a matter of a 15-minute halftime break. Reminiscent of Clark Kent entering the phone booth and emerging as Superman, but instead of flying and super strength, we got forceful finishes and perfect rim reads — from a Bismack Biyombo level 2-9-2 in the first half to 17-9-4 in the second, with 5 more points in overtime.
What I’m trying to say is that Tatum was bad in the first half, and fantastic in the second. While part of it was simply him growing into the game, the Celtics adjusted offensively and that allowed Tatum to thrive. Let’s take a look at the first half offense and then dive into what changed.
The first half started with what most fans, myself included, like to see from the Celtics offense: off-ball movement and getting Tatum downhill. This pin-down set is a common one for the Cs and something they open games with often. It didn’t work particularly well against Philly.
The primary issue is one of spacing. Al Horford is too busy setting a screen for Jaylen Brown in a mirrored action on the other side of the court to space the floor. That allows Joel Embiid to basically camp in the lane. The result is this action funneling Tatum right into help, and given the time it took to execute the set, by the time here’s in the lane, the shot clock is short. He’s forced into this ugly pull-up midrange shot that goes nowhere. This was a common occurrence in the first half. Low clock, funneled into help, uncomfortable shot.
That’s not to say Tatum is without fault. His first half was plagued with half-hearted drives at Embiid, afraid to truly challenge him.
This is a terrible shot; there’s no force, no confidence. If you go strong, Embiid might block, but you might also get fouled. The upside is a lot higher with a strong take than whatever that floater was.
Then came the second half and the adjustments. Importantly, there’s no one on the Sixers that can stay in front of Tatum off the bounce. No one. He’s too big and strong for De’Anthony Melton and Tyrese Maxey and too quick and shifty for everyone else. Instead of putting him off-ball and funneling him towards help, Joe Mazzulla gave him the ball at the top of the key with a spaced floor and let him go to work. It worked.
Sometimes the best coaching adjustment is something simple. Like "give it to your best player." pic.twitter.com/oIUhLlthhZ— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) May 9, 2023
With Al on the floor, Embiid gets spaced out and opens the lane up for JT. With Rob Williams on the court, Tatum is able to draw help from Embiid and lay it off in dangerous areas. He was getting to the rim ruthlessly the entire half and either finishing strong right at the rim or making the right read for a drop off or kick to a shooter. And because it’s simple offense, Tatum always had sufficient time to get in and out of a few moves without worrying about the shot clock winding down. It was unstoppable.
I anticipate we will see the Celtics attack in this manner early and often in Game 5. You have to leverage Al Horford’s shooting against the Sixers and make Embiid either leave Al or the lane. So long as the floor is appropriately spaced, all Tatum has to do is breakdown his man and the offense carries from there. Let’s just hope he gets into the offense a little quicker this time.