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Jayson Tatum is passing with flying colors as his playmaking escalates

Jayson Tatum is passing with flying colors as his playmaking escalates

Progression isn't linear.

Some players enter the league and almost immediately experience superstardom. Just look at what Luka Doncic is doing at just 23 years old, averaging 31.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 6.6 assists while ending the hopes and dreams of a 64-win Phoenix Suns team. For other stars, the maturation process is one that takes time. Take a glance across the aisle at the Miami Heat with Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, who didn't make their first All-Star teams until 25 and 28 years of age, respectively.

Even the way that superstars experience progression differs dramatically from player to player. Steph Curry made his leap by improving as a two-point scorer. Giannis Antetokounmpo found a way to exceed his lofty ceiling by tirelessly building out his body.

That brings us to Jayson Tatum, fresh off vanquishing the aforementioned Finals MVP and the Milwaukee Bucks in what was a thrilling seven-game series. Buttery smooth scoring has long been the calling card of Tatum's game, and he's made alterations to that skill set over the years, eschewing mid-range shots for increased attempts at the rim and a bevy of pull-up three-pointers. But for as great of a scorer as Tatum has been as Boston's lead option, it's a different aspect of his game that has allowed him to ascend to a higher plane in these playoffs.

Jayson Tatum has taken yet another leap as a passer.

Tatum's assist average has increased every single season of his five-year career, and it feels as if it's all coming together this postseason. Through 11 playoff games, Tatum is averaging 6.1 assists per contest, which is not only a career-high but also a massive jump from the 4.4 dimes he averaged a night in the regular season. Five of his 10 highest-assist games have come in the 2022 playoffs, and his 12.5 potential assists — which measures passes to a player who shoots within one dribble — and 1.0 secondary assists  (a.k.a. hockey assists) per game both register as career-highs.

His performance in Game 7 emblematized just how far he's come as a playmaker. Tatum was by far the best player on the floor, despite having the third-most points (23) in the game behind Antetokounmpo (25) and Grant Williams (27). His growth as a teammate, as a leader and as a player who has learned he can't do it alone shone brightly on the biggest stage. He finished with 8 assists and embraced his role as Boston's floor general.

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Williams will forever be etched into Boston lore thanks to his game-high 27 points on 7 made threes, but that wouldn't have been possible without the selflessness of his MVP-caliber teammate.

Milwaukee has long prioritized protecting the paint at all costs and allowing three-pointers from less-threatening options, and Sunday's Game 7 was no exception. In order to do so, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer matched Brook Lopez with Williams (and later Derrick White) and had Lopez pre-rotate into the painted area even if this meant conceding corner threes.

Initially, coach Bud's strategy appeared to be one of prudence, as Williams missed 5 of his first 7 three-point shots — 3 of which came off passes from Tatum. A younger Tatum might've looked elsewhere for assistance, or even pulled out his do-it-himself kit. The present-day Tatum, however, was unfazed by Williams' sluggish start. He instead trusted his teammate's work and continued to feed him a diet of pinpoint passes when Lopez shifted over, with his focus on finding the best possible shots — which just so happened to be open corner three-pointers for a 41% long-range shooter.

“Every shot he took tonight was a great shot. He took 22 shots and easily could have had 30. I feel like he passed up and was hesitant because he missed a couple in a row. And I think regardless, we just say to play the right way, make the right plays," Tatum said.

"If Grant took 10 open shots in a row, that’s what we expect. If guys (are) hesitant and pass up open shots, it kind of (ruins) the rhythm that we play off. So we tell everybody, 'When you’re open, shoot the ball.'”

Tatum did more than just find the open man in the crevices of Milwaukee's defensive scheme; he also flashed his widely diverse and rapidly improving passing portfolio.

He broke down defenders in isolation and got downhill, only to kick out to open teammates with gorgeous spinning dimes like the one above. One thing to note: Tatum is passing on 38.6% of drives, the highest downhill passing rate of his career. 

He exhibited patience and let the defense come to him, waiting for double-teams to converge only to precisely move the ball to open teammates (See: Clip 1). He also made plays out of the short roll when utilized as a screener (Clip 2). Tatum even fulfilled his connective duties admirably within coordinated ATOs, hurling a gorgeous high-low pass to Jaylen Brown from Boston's HORNS formation for his prettiest dime of the night (Clip 3).

In the 2022 postseason, Tatum has assisted on more than one-fourth of his teammates' buckets (25.2% assist percentage), a career-best for the St. Louis native. After averaging just 1.6 assists per game in his rookie season, he's made what was once his biggest shortcoming a legitimate strength.

Boston's ceiling as a championship contender was always going to be defined by its stars' willingness to share amongst the group. Isolation basketball doomed this ball club in previous postseason runs, and it's the main reason the Celtics have yet to advance to an NBA Finals. Even at the beginning of the season, there were questions about Tatum and Brown's capacity to move the ball and keep Boston's offense fairly democratic. Heck, their teammate, Marcus Smart, questioned the duo's appetite to facilitate after Boston's lethargic 2-5 start to the regular season.

“Every team knows we are trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen, and every team is programmed and studies to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try to pass the ball," Smart said on Nov. 2. "They don’t want to pass the ball, and that’s something that they’re going to learn.

"They’re still learning and we’re proud of the progress they are making, but they are going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves, but create for others on this team, to open up the court for them later in the game where they don’t always have to take those tough shots or take tough matchups when they do get the 1-on-1 and see a trap. Just reading that. It’s something that we’ve been asking for them to do and they’re learning. We just got to continue to help those guys do that and to help our team.”

Now, Smart's early-season angst feels like a distant memory. Jayson Tatum has taken the requisite steps as a playmaker, only escalating that growth within the postseason, and his Celtics are beginning to see the results.

Taking down the defending champions was a big test, and Tatum passed with flying colors by, well, passing the dang rock.

A new challenge begins against the Miami Heat's second-ranked playoff defense.

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