Celtics

Tatum Transforming Right in Front of Us

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If the 2020-2021 Boston Celtics were a movie, then last Tuesday night was the climax.

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Jayson Tatum scored his third career 50-point game to lift the Celtics over the Washington Wizards in the NBA’s inaugural Play-In tournament. In fact, all three of his offensive explosions have come this year.

It’s been an up-and-down season for both Tatum and his Celtics. The team has muddled in mediocrity all year, partly due to injury. Marcus Smart missed 18 consecutive and 24 total games dealing with a calf tear. Kemba Walker missed 29 games with lingering knee issues.

Even Tatum, a model of consistency, missed five games due to COVID protocol and eight total. Regardless, the young forward put up 26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game during the regular season. The numbers are spectacular for a 23-year-old just entering his second contract.

Before his bout with COVID, he was putting up ridiculous shooting splits. Tatum scorched the league by shooting 47.4% from the field and 43.8% from the arc.

From late January through early March, he slipped to 24.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists on Russell Westbrook-like efficiency. The shooting splits were frigid at 41.9% from the field and 32.9% from deep, a noticeable dip to even his career averages. It was clear the illness had an effect. Tatum spoke to reporters in February regarding his experience returning from the virus.

“I think it messes with your breathing a little bit. I have experienced some games where, I don’t want to say struggling to breathe, but you get fatigued a lot quicker than normal just running up and down the court a few times. It’s easier to get out of breath or tired a lot faster. I’ve noticed that since I’ve had COVID. It’s gotten better since the first game I’ve played, but I still deal with it from time to time.”

With Jaylen Brown out for the remainder of the playoffs, the Celtics needed Tatum’s outburst against the Wizards. 

Hometown Hype

Washington’s star guard Bradley Beal grew up with Tatum in Saint Louis, Mo.

“He’s a special talent, and I have been saying that since he was in diapers. It doesn’t surprise me”, said Beal to reporters postgame.

The Celtics are poised to play the Brooklyn Nets with their three-headed monster of Kevin Durant, James Harden and former Celtic Kyrie Irving. With Brown out, Boston will need the best from Tatum if they hope to stay competitive with the league’s newest super-team.

With his silky shooting, staggering handle and slick drives to the basket, Tatum has become one of the premier offensive talents in the league.

Not too long ago, his offense was the reason he was under heavy scrutiny following his breakout rookie campaign.

THE METEORIC RISE

The 2017-18 season was destined to be a dud for the Celtics. Gordon Hayward only registered six minutes of play and Kyrie was ruled out for the entirety of the playoffs. They had to rely on a young core of Tatum, Brown, Smart and Terry Rozier.

They made it to the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Against a LeBron James led team.

The signature play of the playoff run being a Tatum dunk over King James in Game 7. The Duke product led the C’s in scoring, averaging 18.5 points per game.

The Jayson Tatum hype train was at full speed heading into the 2018-19 season. His offseason workout with Kobe Bryant fueled comparisons to the Laker legend.

Finally, Celtics were finally getting Irving and Hayward back. Tatum was expected to be the sidekick to Irving’s wizardry. It had seemed like the C’s were primed for the long-awaited Banner 18.

Bill Simmons, owner of the Ringer, predicted the C’s to win 67 games in spectacular fashion.

“Eastern Conference, I have some bad news. You’re going to get your butt kicked by the Boston Celtics…They’re going to win 67 games. They’re going to be up by 30 points in a lot of them. There’s going to be a lot of high fiving. A lot of three pointers. A lot of people standing because the 12th man on the team dunked to put them up 40 with two minutes left.”

THE LOST SEASON

The Boston Celtics finished that season 49-33, good for fourth in the Eastern Conference and 18 wins shy of Simmons’ prediction.

The entire season was rife with drama. Kyrie verbally committed to re-signing with Boston then backpedaled when pressed by media before a game versus the Knicks at MSG.

Hayward was a major storyline as he made his debut as a Celtic after missing the previous season. The forward wasn’t ready despite being thrust into the starting lineup, much to the ire of Rozier and Marcus Morris. Hayward seemed timid around the basket and never found the confidence that made him an All-Star in Utah.

Brown and Morris got into a confrontation by the bench after a 115-99 loss in Miami. A fan recorded the spat, which spread like wildfire, causing yet another distraction for the C’s.

The Celtics flamed out in five games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

GLARING INEFFICIENCIES

Amongst all this drama, one thing flew under the radar: Jayson Tatum.

Tatum has a relatively low-maintenance and reserved personality compared to other stars in the NBA. There was no off-court issue that Tatum added to the Celtics’ aura of drama that season. Instead, his issue was purely between the lines.

After working out with the late Bryant and being crowned the league’s next superstar by fans and experts, Tatum lost himself. No longer was he the efficient scorer that led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals the year before.

He seemed to fall in love with the long two pointers, much like Kobe was fond of. The midrange shot, especially the long two, is analytically proven to be the least efficient shot possible.

Tatum made it a point to shoot just inside the arc instead of stepping back to the three. He chose pulling a midrange fadeaway instead of taking a mismatch to the rim. According to Basketball Reference, 33.8% of his shots came from midrange. 56% of those midrange shots came from just inside the three-point arc. In total, Tatum shot 39% on shots from the midrange.

AN AWKWARD FIT

In total, Tatum ended up putting up worse numbers in 2018-19 than he did in his first playoff run the year before. He was expected to make a run at an all-star spot but ended up averaging a mere 15.7 points per game. Surprisingly, his field goal percentages took a dip.

With Irving and Hayward out on the floor, Tatum was expected to get easier shots. Instead, his poor shot selection led to lower percentages than his rookie season. He shot 45% from the field and 37.3% from three. They sunk to an even lower 43.8% and 32.3% on 15.2 points per game in the C’s disappointing playoff run that season.

The numbers are solid, but they were a significant drop off from his breakout rookie season and playoffs. Clearly, Tatum was forced into an awkward position.

Irving, Hayward, Brown, Morris and Rozier each wanted their fair share of shots. Though Tatum has off-ball scoring skills, he is best suited as a number one option and having to force his fit on the team was not a recipe for success.

First, Irving and Horford bolted. Later, Rozier was traded to Charlotte Hornets for Walker. Lastly, Morris left for the Knicks.

The team with too many shot creators had a new identity; Jayson Tatum as the face of the franchise. Finally, Tatum of the 2018 playoffs was back and better than ever.

Follow us on Twitter @CelticsLead for the latest Celtics news and insight. 

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About Ahmed Warfa

A senior at the University of Miami from Boston, Massachusetts. Always grew up a Boston sports fan and want to continue my career covering my hometown Celtics.

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