NBA playoffs 2022 – How Jayson Tatum has leveled up his game for the Boston Celtics

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Less than 10 days ago, the Boston Celtics were playing the biggest game of their season, facing elimination on the road against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. It was a crucible moment for the best young team in the Eastern Conference, and Jayson Tatum played one of the best games of his life to extend the series and save Boston’s season.

Tatum went off for 46 points, shooting and scoring more than twice as many points as any of his teammates. He went toe-to-toe with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and led his team to its biggest win of the season.

The Celtics went on to a breezy Game 7 victory to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in five years, but this trip feels different. Tatum & Co. have already eliminated Kevin Durant and Antetokounmpo in back-to-back series, as Tatum has become the face of one of the toughest young teams in recent NBA history.

At 24, Tatum is exactly what the Celtics need him to be: an elite two-way star who fits neatly within coach Ime Udoka’s hard-nosed, team-first concepts. It didn’t happen overnight, but since January, Tatum has played some of the best hoops of his life, and his midseason awakening is a huge reason why Boston is a real threat to take home the redesigned Larry O’Brien Trophy next month.

Before Jan. 1, Tatum was playing inefficient basketball and the Celtics were playing like a play-in team. Boston finished 2021 with a record of 17-19, tied with the New York Knicks for ninth place in the East.

And while New York’s playoff hopes faded out of existence when the calendar turned to 2022, Boston went in the exact opposite direction. Since Jan. 1, Tatum has played like a legitimate superstar, and the Celtics have been arguably the best team in the NBA.

Between Jan. 1 and the end of the regular season, the Celtics owned the best defensive rating in the league and the second-rated offense, and led all teams with a massive net rating of plus-12.7.

But make no mistake, in a league driven by superstars, Tatum’s leap is the single biggest reason why the Celtics are built to last.

Tatum was built to be a great scorer. As a prospect at Duke, Tatum’s scoring was his strong suit. Take a quick look at Mike Schmitz’s scouting report on him from June 2017, just before the Celtics drafted him with the No. 3 overall pick:

The St. Louis native is the most polished scorer of the bunch, with stellar footwork, excellent touch 18 feet in, and a mid-post/back to basket game that rivals some NBA vets. Hard jab-step pull-ups, rocker-steps, side-steps, turnarounds, Dirk fallaways, quick spins, you name it, Tatum likely has it in his arsenal.

The scoring arsenal was there. The youngster combined size, athleticism and scoring skill better than anybody in his draft class.

Tatum was bound to become a prolific scorer, and five years into his career, he’s right on schedule. This season, he ranked seventh in scoring, and looking at his shot chart, a few key trends jump out.

The most encouraging thing is that he’s becoming a lot more efficient close to the basket. Just two years ago, Tatum made only 51% of his paint shots, which is well below the league average. This year, he made more than 57% of them, a mark above the league average. This is the best single trend in his portfolio, but he could be more active in that part of the court. Yes, he ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring, but he ranked 25th in the league in paint scoring; going forward into his prime, he should be higher in that category.

Second, his jump-shooting efficiency can still improve. He may never be Durant, but only three players in the league took more jumpers than Tatum did this year. Looking at his numbers on those shots, it’s clear he can improve his conversion rate both beyond the arc and in the midrange. Out of 83 players who launched at least 500 jumpers this year, Tatum ranked 61st in efficiency, yielding just 0.99 points per shot, a mark that’s actually below the league average of 1.01.

If there’s a difference between superstar scorers and legit MVP candidates in the NBA, it is that ability to make teammates perform better — the ability to convert outsized defensive attention into opportunities for shooters.

Nikola Jokic does that. Antetokounmpo and LeBron James do it too. Scoring has always come easy for Tatum, but playmaking has not. If he figures out the playmaking piece, he can become a perennial MVP candidate.

Let’s take another look at the Schmitz scouting report from 2017 at this telling passage.

He hasn’t always been the most willing passer, as he has some ISO-heavy habits that date back to his high school days, but he has more than adequate vision, and could become an asset in that area as he learns to trust his teammates.

Following both Kyrie Irving‘s departure and the short tenure of Kemba Walker, Boston’s offense is more egalitarian than it’s been in years. With Marcus Smart now the team’s primary ball handler, there are more chances for Tatum to get involved as a passer. In turn, Tatum’s emergent playmaking has helped Smart’s migration to the point guard position.

Back in 2017-18, with Irving running Boston’s ship, Tatum averaged just 3.1 potential assists per game. This season, that number is 8.9. In those Irving seasons, he averaged fewer than 30 passes per game, and the Celtics offense ran through Irving — when the ball came to Tatum, he was inclined to finish the play. Now, Tatum is passing the ball almost 50 times per contest, and in these playoffs he’s also playing more pick-and-roll than ever.

He has eight career games where he used an on-ball screen as the ball handler at least 34 times; four of those games came in the conference semifinals vs. the Bucks. Still, out of 18 players who have handled the ball in at least 200 pick actions this postseason, Tatum ranks 15th in efficiency, yielding just 0.90 points per chance on those plays.

Some of Tatum’s improving playmaking has to do with Boston moving on from Irving and Walker, but some of it has to do with Tatum learning to drive an NBA offense, and his ability to make the right play in the pick-and-roll will be another keystone of his development.

Between Brad Stevens’ roster tweaks, Udoka’s updated strategies on both ends and Tatum’s midseason awakening, this is the best Boston team in at least a decade.

Here’s the scariest part: The current formula looks sustainable for years to come. Tatum and the Celtics have a real chance to contend for multiple championships in the 2020s.

The 2021-22 Celtics are the most trustworthy group Tatum has ever played with. Udoka has emphasized teamwork, and his time with the San Antonio Spurs has influenced his approach.

After the Celtics swept Brooklyn out of the first round, Nets GM Sean Marks met reporters for a postmortem news conference. It was newsworthy in part because Marks said this about Irving: “We’re looking for guys that want to be something bigger than themselves, play team basketball, and be available. That goes for Kyrie and everybody here.”

That exact mantra — wanting people that want to be something bigger than themselves — has been a common saying, and a key team-building concept in San Antonio, where both Marks and Udoka spent time, for years now.

It’s clear that Marks felt like Brooklyn lacked in that department — Udoka’s group in Boston does not. The Celtics’ core group of players is arguably the most cohesive in the league. Its starting five of Tatum, Smart, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III was by far the single best five-man group in the league this year.

In the 443 minutes the Celtics starters were on the floor this season, they outscored their opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions. Among the 34 five-man lineups who played at least 200 minutes together this season, Boston’s starting group ranked first in net rating, first in defensive rating and eighth in offensive rating.

Not all superstar scorers are willing or able to play great defense, but again, Tatum shines in this regard. He’s naturally gifted with the kind of size and physical ability that makes NBA scouts swoon, but it’s his will to actually excel on the unglamorous end of the court that separates him from some of his fellow superstars.

At 24, Tatum is on the brink. He’s not yet in his prime, but the main trends in his key statistical markers are encouraging. And while this season got off to a rocky start, his ability to snap out of his early-season funk and rediscover his ascendant arc toward superstar status is the biggest reason the Celtics are seven wins away from their 18th championship.

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