As Jayson Tatum goes, so go the Boston Celtics.
Over the last eight games, Tatum has started to hit his stride. Since November 6th, the team’s leading scorer has averaged 28.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. Sure, he’s shooting 41.6% on nearly ten 3-pointers a game — and points flow when great shooters knock down shots.
Here’s what is most impressive: Tatum is finishing at the rim at a much higher clip. He’s playing stronger and more balanced, which allows him to both take contact and dish it out. When contact comes to his core or his lower body, a strong base allows him to land afterward without losing his footwork and traveling.
You can see how much Tatum is seeking out contact on his drives these days. One hard bounce to gather propels him into his man like a missile, and he does a great job of finishing through that contact.
Over his last four games, Tatum is 15-of-24 at the rim (and taken 27 free throws). Encouragingly, Tatum is taking six attempts there per game, slightly more than his season average earlier. Prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers game on November 13th, Tatum was converting on a mere 42% at the rim.
The added physical emphasis on his drives brings risk. Defenders start to adjust, waiting for that contact as a reason to embellish and go down. For Tatum, the key in initiating contact with his inside shoulder or forearm is not to extend his arm and push off. He’s already subtly done a great job at creating space against physical defenders for his step-back, the exact right times he should use the move.
By getting to the rim more, Tatum expands the rest of his repertoire. Defenses fear him getting to the tin and sell out with more helpers sent to the rim. That opens up kick-outs for Tatum, where he can set up his teammates for easy looks.
The Celtics play a lot of isolation-driven ball with Tatum at the fulcrum. If the primary creator doesn’t get to the rim and put pressure on it by taking step-back after step-back, help defenders will start to cheat back to their man. Kickouts create fewer open shots as a result.
Now that Tatum is finishing more and scoring better at the rim, helpers will have to fire at him. Kickouts will open as a result:
On Saturday, the Oklahoma City Thunder staff instructed their players to run hard at Tatum when he drove it, turning him into a passer and not letting him get to the rim for contact. Jayson was ready for such coverage, spinning and coming to a stop off two feet so he could dump the ball off to an open teammate.
The Celtics are winning games lately, even without Jaylen Brown. Tatum has been the biggest reason for such a resurgence. The Celtics defense has been in a great spot for a few weeks, and the offense is starting to catch up. It may not be December yet, but it certainly feels like the entire team is starting to turn a corner with Tatum leading the way.