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,
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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 defending champions was a big test, and Tatum passed with
flying colors by, well, passing the dang rock.
challenge begins against the Miami Heat's second-ranked playoff
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