May 25, 2024

Did Celtics’ Jayson Tatum have a bad game? Understanding the truth behind the box score

BOSTON — If you turned on your TV Wednesday morning, you couldn’t miss the praise for the Boston Celtics’ blowout win to take a 1-0 series lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers. But there was a caveat.

Derrick White was a star, Jaylen Brown was unstoppable, but Jayson Tatum had a bad shooting night. Shooting 0-for-5 from deep, and scoring 18 points, it was easy to write up a chyron wondering if the Celtics should be concerned about Tatum’s shooting.

“It’s just the casuals who think it’s all about the shots,” Payton Pritchard said at Wednesday’s practice. “But there’s so many different areas he can affect the game. If he only gets 18 points, but we get a win by 25 points, he was very impactful.”

But the questions pop up because it wasn’t just the Cavaliers who had him missing. Tatum is connecting at 25 percent from 3-point range this postseason. Considering he is shooting 31 percent beyond the arc over the 26 games since the start of last year’s playoffs, it is a fair question to ask.

“I think he’s taking really good shots. I just think they’re not falling,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I urge him to continue to take those, and they’ll fall.”

The perception has generally been that Tatum had an underwhelming shooting season. But after spending Christmas week in Los Angeles recalibrating his shot mechanics, something that regularly happens at some point every year, he shot 40.7 percent in the 39 games between January and March before he went on cruise control in April.

His touch has eluded him so far in the playoffs, but the Celtics haven’t really been tested so far. So what happens when a team is good enough to have the Celtics on the ropes, start to finish?

“We’re winning and he’s playmaking. So it seems like he’s handling it well,” Jrue Holiday said. “But again, Jayson is more than just a scorer. He’s a complete basketball player who does everything. So I think for him to be able to damn near average a triple-double almost every game is something he can do.”

On the four plays where another Celtic took a shot after Tatum grabbed the defensive rebound, Boston scored or got fouled. When he took the shot after his defensive rebound, he missed almost every time.

Parsing Tatum’s misses, he repeatedly targeted Cavs guards in the high post and missed five shots that are generally in his wheelhouse. He bricked several clean looks at pull-up 3s. Often, he’ll find himself something like 0-for-5 halfway through the third quarter, then go on a barrage to finish 3-for-8 and it’s considered a normal night for him. But with the way White and Brown were cooking, there was no need for Tatum to find his shooting rhythm late in Game 1.

As we examined in Tuesday’s story, Tatum’s screening was instrumental in getting White’s pull-up game going. With Kristaps Porziņģis out, Tatum’s screening became a central tenet of the game plan, especially with Al Horford pulling Evan Mobley out of the paint. So while he took the bait on some of the Cavs’ defensive choices and didn’t convert most of the time, the Celtics got to use him how they wanted.

“I don’t think he’s being forced to do anything. I mean, he was 1.6 (points per possession) as a screener in our offense yesterday, which would be the best offense in the history of the world,” Mazzulla said. “And he had 11 potential assists and he had 18 points and three blocks. I think he’s doing a great job of taking what the defense gives him and finding any way to impact the game on both ends of the floor. That’s what we need him to be and he’s doing a really good job of it.”

Unlike most situations for high-scoring stars, the Celtics roster has enough scoring around him so that Tatum doesn’t have to force the issue most nights. Game 1 had him looking like more of a decoy to free up Boston’s guards, which works since Tatum is more than willing to get involved as a screener.

“I think he’s becoming a playmaker. He’s been a playmaker,” Holiday said. “Not that he’s being a sacrificial lamb, but he making a lot of the right plays, he takes his chances where people are going to double-team him and he’s gonna take some of those shots, but I think he’s getting everybody open looks.”

There’s no doubt that if the Celtics are gunning for a title, Tatum’s going to have to convert on his open looks. According to NBA Stats, he shot 2-for-10 on uncontested shots in Game 1. He has made a living at looking out of rhythm on the easiest shots, then burying looks that only he and a small group of stars can pull off.

As with everything in the Celtics offense, Tatum will need to achieve balance. Over time, he’s proven he’ll find a way.

(Photo: Winslow Townson / USA Today)