The Boston Celtics may have lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, but the game spoke volumes about Jayson Tatum. His defense on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the fourth quarter quietly made headlines, but his play as the Celtics’ offensive hub was just as impressive.
Following a string of rough shooting performances, highlighted by ill-timed pull-up threes, Tatum completely took over late. And in the Celtics’ 126-97 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday, he didn’t wait until the final frame.
Tatum was pulled from the game with 4:01 left in the third, but he still managed to pour in 30 points, nine rebounds, five assists, one steal, and one block before his exit. He shot an efficient 6-of-12 from the floor and 5-of-8 from distance.
“Just being patient, slowing down, taking what the defense gives him, reading the defense, [and] understanding everybody around him,” Joe Mazzulla said of Tatum’s transition from primary scorer to offensive hub. “We’re a better team when everyone is a threat, and he can be a better player when he uses everybody around him. It actually makes his job easier.”
Utah broke out a zone look against the Celtics early in the game, but Tatum’s play at the free-throw line quickly put it to rest. His drives forced the Jazz to send two. His presence in the paint forced the defense to send two. Tatum was a walking, talking nightmare for the Jazz.
But his control of the game extended past his duties as a facilitator.
“You kind of saw that tonight with his ability to get more catch-and-shoot opportunities,” Mazzulla said. “His ability to get to the free-throw line. And that’s kind of what the guys are recognizing, that the guy next to you is gonna make your job easier.
“That’s why we’re a good team, and if we continue to trust that, we can continue to grow as a team. He’s being patient in his reads, and he’s changing up. He’s playing off-ball, he’s screening, [and] he’s handling. So, really, all of them [the team] have grown in that.”
Up to this point in his career as the Celtics’ leader, Tatum’s role has often been that of the team’s primary scorer. Full stop. This year, the situation is different.
Boston added two All-Star-caliber players over the summer, which means more mouths to feed. Tatum’s still the All-NBA First Teamer. The MVP candidate. And, by the numbers, the scoring leader. But that’s not his only job anymore.
Instead, he’s tasked with accepting all the defensive pressure that comes with being the team’s primary scorer while also having to help his teammates thrive. It’s a new challenge and one that he’s tackling head-on (with lots of success).
“Different games present different challenges,” Tatum explained. “It’s just all about reading the game. It’s not necessarily taking a backseat, but just understanding what we have, the talent that we have, and how we’re trying to attack. Just trying to make it easier on myself and everybody else.”