The Boston Celtics suffered another demoralizing defeat on Thursday night. This one, at the hands of the New York Knicks, featured a blown 25-point lead, a career night from former guard Evan Fournier and a miraculous buzzer-beater by RJ Barrett. With their fifth loss in the last seven games, the Celtics have dropped to 18-21 on the season — a mark that, as it stands, would have them out of the playoff picture entirely.
All of the headlines from this game are going to focus on Barrett and Fournier and another fourth-quarter collapse by the Celtics. And for good reason. The Celtics have some real issues closing out games, and an increasingly exasperated head coach Ime Udoka called for more “leadership” and said his team gets “rattled” down the stretch.
But hard as it might be to believe, it wasn’t all bad news for the Celtics at Madison Square Garden. Not when Jayson Tatum put together an elite performance, one that can provide a blueprint for success moving forward. Tatum finished with 36 points on 12-of-21 from the field and 6-of-11 from 3-point land, to go along with six rebounds and nine assists. It wasn’t just the numbers, though, it was the way Tatum went about his business.
“But it’s not just getting out in transition, running and playing faster that way. We want quick decisions in the half court.” — Ime Udoka
Tatum has faced criticism this season for his decision-making and shot selection. He’s still averaging 25.7 points per game, but he’s having the least efficient season of his career, shooting 41.8 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from 3. Too often he settles, launching difficult jumpers after a series of dribbling moves that go nowhere. It’s boring, predictable and frustrating for everyone involved, including his teammates as Marcus Smart is more than willing to tell you.
There was very little of that against the Knicks. Whether it was pulling up from 3 out of the high pick-and-roll, or making a strong drive to the basket, he was sharp and decisive. The “quick decisions” that Udoka was asking for in the aforementioned quote were on display.
Here, in the second quarter, is a perfect example. Tatum catches the ball on the wing, makes a hard jab-step toward the baseline and immediately attacks Barrett’s close out. Then he bullies the Knicks forward out of the way and converts a soft little push shot in the lane. No extra dribbles, no giving the Knicks’ defense a chance to get set, just a fast and powerful move.
Late in the fourth quarter was perhaps the most encouraging play. The Celtics had Tatum set a screen so he could catch the ball on the elbow against a switch. This is a prime area for Tatum to operate, but instead of backing out and isolating, he went right into a double spin move and converted a clutch and-one.
This is the kind of approach the Celtics need from Tatum on a more regular basis. There’s a time for clearing out and going one-on-one, but he has so much success when he’s assertive and attacks the defense before it can get set.
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“We have multiple handlers. We have multiple playmakers. That’s an area where we need to see growth with Jaylen and Jayson. It’s not just scoring the basketball. It’s those guys initiating the offense and being better playmakers. That’s the next step in their evolution.” — Ime Udoka
Coming into the season, there was a general consensus that Tatum had the scoring aspect of the game pretty much figured out. The next big step for him on the road to superstardom was becoming a better playmaker who could get everyone else involved. Watch any Celtics game on national TV, and you’ll hear the commentators making a point along these lines.
Through the first few months of the season, things have been up and down. As expected there’s been some really positive flashes, along with moments of naivety. He’s averaging 3.9 assists and 8.5 potential assists per game — numbers that put him right in the neighborhood of other similar high-usage scorers like Donovan Mitchell, Zach LaVine and Devin Booker.
Thursday night, we saw the potential Tatum has as a playmaker who can be in control of all aspects of the game. He was making all the right reads, balanced his scoring with getting others involved and also threw a highlight-reel pass to Jaylen Brown.
Here’s a look from the first quarter. Tatum comes off the screen from Robert Williams III and begins to go into his iso routine. But instead of forcing a jumper, he waits until the help defense arrives and finds Marcus Smart for a wide-open 3.
Down the stretch, Tatum continued to make the right play. On this possession in the fourth quarter, he got Fournier on the switch, drove middle and hit Smart once the defense collapsed. This time, though, Smart missed.
As a team, the Celtics went 4-for-13 from 3 in the fourth quarter, which is a big reason why they lost. That sort of poor shooting — the Celtics are 23rd in the league with a 3-point percentage of 33.5 — is a factor that should probably be brought up more often when discussing Tatum’s (and Brown’s) playmaking. It would be a lot easier for him (and his numbers would be better) if the Celtics had more spacing and shooting around him.
With the Celtics currently sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, the hand-wringing isn’t going to stop anytime soon. But as bad as things have been this season, Thursday night was a reminder, even amidst another gut-wrenching loss, that they have one of the most talented young players in the league. And if he continues to follow the formula he laid out against the Knicks, both he and the Celtics can still have a bright future.