That’s Pretty Interesting: For Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, it’s all coming together


These days, Jayson Tatum hardly cares who’s guarding him. In the third quarter at Staples Center on Sunday, he looked at Anthony Davis, a defender reminiscent of the giant mechanical spider in “Wild Wild West,” and decided to attack. It should have been a highlight:

The Boston Celtics forward rejected the screen because he knew Davis and JaVale McGee were going to trap him on the perimeter, a strategy that tells you exactly how desperate the Los Angeles Lakers were to get the ball out of his hands. With a strong crossover dribble, he turned Davis the wrong way, got into the paint and earned two of his 15 free throw attempts on the afternoon. 

Just before that, Tatum had hit his patented side-step 3 in Davis’ face:

A few possessions later, Tatum would clear out against Davis, dribble behind his back, drive away from the help and bank in a runner as if it were the easiest shot in the world:

In that third clip, Brad Wanamaker makes the universal sign for “get out of his way.” This is not what usually happens against Davis, but it is increasingly a viable strategy for Boston. Tatum followed up his 41-point performance in Los Angeles with 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting in Portland on Tuesday; in his last 14 games he has averaged 28.5 points on 50.4 shooting and made 47.5 percent of his 8.4 3-point attempts a game. 

Just before the All-Star break, Tatum dropped 39 points on the Los Angeles Clippers in a double-overtime win. Tatum calmly ran pick-and-rolls to get matchups he wanted, but even against Kawhi Leonard, if he sensed he had an advantage, he went for it:

The Clippers game seemed like his tour de force. Now this kind of thing is starting to feel normal. After the 114-112 heartbreaker against the Lakers, Jaylen Brown said that his teammate has “reached a new height, man,” via MassLive’s Tom Westerholm. “Superstar level.” If Tatum has not yet earned that kind of label from the league at large, it is because he is at the most fun stage of a star player’s development: When it’s all coming together. 

The day before training camp, Tatum and Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga made a deal to not discuss last season at all, Larranaga told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. I have made no such deal, so:

  • In 2018-19, Tatum scored 0.91 points per possession running pick-and-rolls (71st percentile), and he ran 189 of them. On isolation plays, he managed just 0.63 points per possession (17th percentile) on 162 possessions.
  • This season, Tatum has scored 1.079 points per possession running pick-and-rolls (93rd percentile!), and he has already run 291 of them. He’s all the way up to the 75th percentile in isolation, scoring 0.994 points per possession on 172 possessions.

Early in the season, the story was shot selection. Skills coach Drew Hanlen told the Boston Globe‘s Adam Himmelsbach that Tatum had spent his summer changing his habits: He was often banned from taking long 2s, instead focusing more on getting downhill, finishing through contact and shooting off-the-dribble 3s with consistency. Indeed, Tatum has changed his shot profile: Long 2s represent only 13 percent of his shots, down from 22 percent last season, per Cleaning The Glass, and he has mostly replaced them with 3s. 

That shift, however, does not explain all this. Tatum placed an emphasis on making better decisions with the ball in his hands, sure, but he also kept working on his handle so he could get where he wanted to go. Weeks later, I am still thinking about his vicious dunk on Al Horford, which was preceded by a left-to-right crossover to elude all-world defender Ben Simmons: 

There was also this ridiculous sequence in Oklahoma City:

This version of Tatum is mature, in control and no longer prone to overthinking. He doesn’t always dominate the ball, but he is not really sacrificing his game, either. He knows how good he is, he plays elite defense regardless of whether or not shots are falling and his teammates clearly want to see him to do his thing.

About a year ago in this space, I wrote about Tatum’s flashes of brilliance in a season he’d later describe as “funky.” I wondered then what he’d look like as a No. 1 option. We’re seeing that now because of Kemba Walker’s knee issues, and it shouldn’t change when Walker is back in the lineup. The way Tatum is playing is exactly why teams invest in players who can do special things even when they’re not perfect, or not even all that efficient. If they round out their rough edges, the payoff can be astronomical. 

Connaughton has a superpower

Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton has blocked 28 shots this season. Virtually half of them have been on 3-pointers, per PBPstats.com, and that’s extremely unusual. Philadelphia 76ers forward Matisse Thybulle is the only player in the league who has blocked more 3s than Connaughton. 

My favorite Connaughton rejection was in transition against the Chicago Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen, who stands 7 feet tall and looked at the 6-5 Connaughton as if he were some kind of alien after it happened:

Here is a supercut of Connaughton blocking 3s, which begins with him surprising Donovan Mitchell behind the arc twice in the same game:

Connaughton discussed his superpower after the Bucks’ 108-97 win against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday. At first he joked that, if there were a secret to blocking as many 3s as he does, he wouldn’t give it up. He then proceeded to explain that it’s all about technique, timing, effort, basketball IQ and athleticism. 

Going for a block behind the 3-point line is a high-leverage play. When it works, it’s a momentum-shifter — Connaughton compared it to a highlight dunk.  When it doesn’t, somebody is going to the line for three shots. If you can’t jump like Connaughton, and if your coach doesn’t trust you to be smart about it, you’re better off not even trying. 

“When I was in Portland, Coach Stotts was adamant on not fouling 3-point shooters, so I’m not sure I blocked as many, more because it wasn’t worth the risk,” Connaughton said. “But I think I’ve gotten better at it over time. I would say the not-fouling part comes down to athleticism. It comes down to hand-eye coordination. It comes down to the ability for me to jump higher than the person that’s shooting the shot because at the end of the day, if I’m lower than them, there’s a lot more room for error to hit their head, to hit their arm, to hit their elbow, hit something. If I’m higher than them, I can kind of go around.”

There is a difference between blocking somebody head-on, like he did to Markkanen, and doing it when trailing an offensive player. The former is about his leaping ability and reading whether or not the shooter is going to pump fake. “I think that’s when guys underestimate my athleticism, my length and my arms, things like that,” Connaughton said. And yes, guys still underestimate all that: “People don’t know. You would think after the dunk contest they would, but they don’t know.”

Connaughton is often tasked with chasing snipers like JJ Redick, Joe Harris and, before becoming teammates with him, Kyle Korver. (He still spends time guarding Korver in practice.) Connaughton has studied their tendencies, and he knows in which situations he’ll have a chance to get a swat. 

“JJ Redick, when he’s coming off a screen, if he’s coming off with his left shoulder turned towards the basket, odds are you’re not going to get to the other side to block it,” Connaughton said. “So how do you make sure that you’re defending against that? How do you make sure that you’re trying to make sure that he’s coming off the other way? Because then when he brings it back, the ball’s in your field.”

When Connaughton blocks a 3-point shooter coming off a screen, it can have ramifications beyond that possession. From being on the other end of it, he knows how disruptive it can be when you know there’s a chance your shot won’t even get to the rim. 

“The rest of the game, they’re thinking about it,” Connaughton said. “If you don’t see a guy and your shot gets blocked, you’re a little bit worried coming off the next screen as to where he is.”

The Redicks and Korvers of the world don’t get rattled, but “guys that aren’t them, aren’t Klay Thompson, aren’t Steph [Curry], you can get ’em a little bit,” Connaughton said. “And quite frankly, I don’t care if it affects them at all or not. I’m going to try to block it again the next time.”

‘We’re not that tricky’

Before that victory in Toronto, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s pregame press conference was unusually compelling. This wasn’t because the famously dry interview subject decided to ham it up. It was all subtext. 

After taking a question about the Raptors’ outside-the-box approach to defense, a reporter asked Budenholzer how much his team changes things from night to night. He said that the Bucks are “very much just focused on ourselves,” and they want to stay true to their identity on both ends. 

“The degree to which we do something one night versus one team and something different another night, by NBA standards, we’re probably on the other end of the spectrum,” Budenholzer said. “We kind of do what we do and hopefully it’s good enough. And our habits, we really believe in building habits. The best way to build habits is just to do it night in night out.”

You could listen to Budenholzer say this and hear nothing but bland coachspeak, but only if you were unaware of his reputation. The biggest knock against him is that his teams are not adaptable: They have strict principles, they play to them all season long, and in the playoffs they don’t adjust to their opponents. 

There was some extra tension in the air given the location: Scotiabank Arena is where Milwaukee’s mostly charmed 2018-19 season ended. The last time Budenholzer was there was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, in which the Bucks lost their fourth straight game to the eventual champs. Throughout the series and in its aftermath, Raptors coach Nick Nurse earned praise for his creativity, while Budenholzer was criticized for his team looking predictable.

Budenholzer knows all this, and while he conveys little emotion when he speaks publicly, there is something defiant about him plainly acknowledging that the Bucks “just go play our game.” Even when asked about lineup flexibility, Budenholzer emphasized that, while they can play big or small, “the stuff we’re doing is still pretty much the same.” The best part of the scrum was the end of it, when a reporter asked if he was holding anything back strategically because he might see Toronto in the playoffs again.

“No,” Budenholzer said. “We’re not that tricky.”

The win was Milwaukee’s 50th of the season in 58 games. It has a plus-11.6 net rating — more on that in a bit — and has generally been steamrolling its competition. We are witnessing a truly special regular season run, and maybe one of the best teams of all-time. 

When its offense was struggling in a familiar way in the first half on Tuesday, though, the founder of Bucks blog Brew Hoop tweeted in frustration:

On cue, Milwaukee got its act together late in the second quarter and shut down Toronto defensively, coming away with an impressive road win on the second night of a back- to-back. The Bucks are betting that they can stabilize themselves the same way if and when they encounter adversity in the playoffs. They have faced little of it so far. 

Checking in on the Rockets again

A little update on Houston’s defensive experiment: The Rockets have given up 104.7 points per 100 possessions with Robert Covington on the court, and 103.2 points per 100 possessions when Covington and P.J. Tucker have shared the court. (For context: Milwaukee surrenders a league low 101.7 points per 100 and Toronto is No. 2 at 104.5 per 100.)

At 6-foot-7, Covington is not a traditional rim protector, but he’s a monster help defender with a 7-2 wingspan. He is averaging 2.6 blocks through seven games as a Rocket, and he already has three separate four-block games with his new team. 

Smart people are noticing. Look at this block against Rudy Gobert:

And this one against Mitchell Robinson:

Houston is up to second in the league in offense, by the way, and has scored 119.6 points per 100 possessions in 176 minutes with Covington and Tucker on the court. Early signs could hardly be more encouraging. 

Cool stat, man

Shoutout to John Schuhmann of NBA.com, who recently pointed out that the Clippers’ defensive rating probably undersells how stingy they are: Against the league’s best offenses, they get stops. Schuhmann also noted that the Bucks’ defensive rating suggests they are in their own tier, but removing their games against bad offenses tells a different story.

I don’t bring this up simply to hype up Los Angeles or concern-troll Milwaukee; it is simply something worth monitoring in the next few months. If the Bucks waltz through the playoffs and win the title, you can expect to hear a lot about how they weren’t given enough respect for their historically good net rating. If they come up short, though, they will be a case study for the limits of that stat’s predictive power. 

Either way, this is an instance of nerdy numbers being intuitive, not intimidating. Anyone can understand the idea that the ability to dominate inferior competition in the regular season is different than the ability to overcome challenges presented by teams of similar quality. Champions tend to do both. 





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One thought on “That’s Pretty Interesting: For Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, it’s all coming together

  1. There are lots of things to learn, so much info on it.
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