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Jayson Tatum’s impact goes beyond his scoring, and so should the discourse

The Celtics star isn’t going to stop shooting, but it’s time to recognize that his offensive influence goes beyond that.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Heading into the Boston Celtics’ two-game road trip against the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, Jayson Tatum’s three-point shot was off.

For a month straight from November 22 to Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Lakers, Tatum was shooting just 30.7% from distance on 8.1 attempts per game. And much to the chagrin of many Celtics fans, the majority were pull-ups. Of his 114 attempts from deep, 80 were pull-up threes, and he shot 23.8% on those looks.

Since then, he’s turned things around. And when asked about the three-point struggles after the Celtics’ win over the Utah Jazz on Friday night, Tatum told CelticsBlog that it’s a matter of reading the game and not settling. But he also emphasized one important fact:

“It’s not like I’m gonna stop shooting them.”

The very next night at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indiana, he showed why.

Tatum unloaded for 38 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists against the Indiana Pacers and shot an absurd 8-of-14 from behind the three-point line. His pull-up was on the money all night.

In the last month, Tatum’s taken on more and more responsibilities as the Celtics’ offensive hub rather than just a scorer. And while his three-point shot waned, the other areas of his game improved.

“You should get better as the season goes on,” Tatum said after Boston’s win in Indiana. “You don’t want to be at your best in October. You want it to be a progression. You’re going to make mistakes, but learn from them, play through them, and correct them. And hopefully, a month from now, I’ll be playing better than I am right now.”

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

At times, Tatum’s three-point-heavy offense led to rough outcomes for Boston. His 2-of-9 showing against the Golden State Warriors included some ill-timed shots, as did his 2-of-8 performance against the Pacers in the In-Season Tournament. Both nights ended in a loss.

However, his growth as a playmaker, screener, and off-ball mover has slowly changed Boston’s offensive outlook. And while his shooting woes may lead to the belief that the Celtics’ offense has slowed down, the opposite is true. Boston’s offense tops the league over the course of the last month with a 125.9 offensive rating.

“I don’t think those shots are bad shots,” Mazzulla told CelticsBlog when asked about Tatum’s pull-up threes. “It depends on time and score. It depends on what the matchup is. It depends on what our team needs at that time. And that’s another area where he’s growing. Just because he’s missing some of those doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t take them, but it also means he’s not limited to those.

“You’re seeing the free throws, you’re seeing the catch-and-shoots, you’re seeing the post-ups, you’re seeing the off-ball. And so, it’s just not being defined by that. It’s being defined by, like, every game is gonna present different challenges, and you gotta be aware of what the challenges are and what the opportunities are.”

The Celtics’ Saturday night win over the Pacers showed how effective Tatum can be when his three-point shot falls, but his impact stretches beyond those looks.

And he’s constantly working to find ways to help the Celtics improve.

“Me and Joe, we watch a lot of film together,” Tatum said. “Just how can I affect the game? How can I manipulate the game? And it’s a lot of progressions.”

Boston’s first two made three-pointers of the game were from Jrue Holiday and Derrick White. Holiday nailed a corner three, and White nailed one at the wing, both assisted by Al Horford.

But Tatum’s impact was there.

“I set two off-ball flares for D-White in a row, and they don’t know how to guard it because they don’t want to switch,” Tatum said. “And we get two open threes. That won’t go in the stat book for me, but then I see how they want to change up how they’re guarding me afterward. It’s just playing mind games like that throughout the game and learning how I can still create opportunities for myself and my teammates.”

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

From then on, Tatum got whatever he wanted against a porous Pacers defense. Catch-and-shoot threes, side-step pull-ups, and step-in middies were all pulled out of his bag of tricks as Indiana’s defensive unit failed to adapt to what Boston threw at them.

Talks of Tatum’s pull-up threes have run rampant for most of the season, and in most spots, there’s valid criticism. Oftentimes, it’s a ball-stopping, game-halting play. And when the shot bricks, opponents can get out in transition.

But the objection to his shot selection has too often overshadowed his mastery of the Celtics’ offense.

“His growth as a player in the last month, I think, has exponentially jumped,” Mazzulla said. “The patience that he’s playing with on drives, his potential assists average, his screening, his ability to know that he needs his teammates to make him better. He had 38 points on 23 shots [against the Pacers], and I didn’t think he forced very much.”

At this point in Tatum’s career, the criticism is only loud because of the standard he’s held to. The expectations are sky-high.

“I think it’s so interesting that when you have a guy for so long, it’s not that we take him for granted,” said Mazzulla. “It’s easy when you get new toys, or you have different things that you want to talk about. It’s actually the ultimate compliment.

“I was telling him when you get to the point where you’re so good from a basketball standpoint, and you want to get better, and you’re such high character, that people can take you for granted. I think that’s the ultimate compliment because they start to see it as, ‘Oh, you’re just supposed to do that.’”

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tatum isn’t going to stop taking pull-up threes. He’s confident in his shot, and though they may not always fall at the clip he’d like them to, nights like Boston’s win in Indiana are possible because his confidence never wavers.

Watching Tatum pick apart the Pacers’ defense from behind the arc was a reminder of what he can do when his shots are going down, but that shouldn’t define his impact on the Celtics.

Shot selection is an important part of basketball, but not the only part. Within a month, Tatum’s offensive evolution has made his pull-up threes a small part of his game. It's frustrating in spots when they don’t fall, but he’s grown to find new ways of making them sprinkles rather than an entire sundae.

The pull-up threes aren’t going anywhere, but the discourse around Tatum’s play should reflect his entire offensive impact, not a single subsection.

“I don’t really look for that praise anymore,” Tatum said. “I’ve accomplished a lot in this league. And I’m truly at the point where I want to get over that hump. I want to get back to the Finals. I want to help us win a championship.

“What I’m doing, I may not win MVP, but just trying to help us continue to be the best team in the league and do my part. If people recognize that, they see it, I appreciate it. But if they don’t, that’s okay.”

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