Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum struggled with his shot in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
In a previous season against a quality team, that may have had an impact on Tatum’s performance in other areas offensively and defensively, and the Celtics maybe lose the game.
That’s no longer the case. Tatum’s growth as a playmaker and passer were on display in the series opener when he shot just 3-for-17 from the field and didn’t score in the fourth quarter but had playoff career-high 13 assists in Boston’s 120-108 victory against Golden State.
“All year leading up to this we’ve been kind of grooming and preparing Jayson for these moments where teams are going to key in on you so much that they try to take you out of the game,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “You have to be able to make plays and affect the game in different ways.”
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Tatum made first-team All-NBA for the first time this season, and a large part of his improvement was the additional responsibility placed on him by Boston coach Ime Udoka.
That included playing and staying engaged defensively.
“We’ve talked about it throughout the year, and I’ve talked to him at length about impacting the game when he’s not having his best offensive night,” Udoka said. “I love his growth and progression in those areas, where he’s still guarding on the defensive end, still getting others involved, not pouting about his shots, and trying to play through some mistakes and physicality they were playing with him.”
Tatum averaged 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season, and while his assists just eclipsed last season’s 4.3 per game, it’s clear Tatum is a better pass — more willing to trust the pass and his teammates.
Udoka wanted to see that from Tatum and Jaylen Brown once he took over as Celtics coach last year. Giving them additional playmaking responsibilities was part of Udoka’s plan to make the Celtics better offensively. There are some stumbles, such as too many turnovers, but positives surpass negatives.
“That was kind of his message from day one, just to challenge me to be the best player that I can be and improve other areas of my game,” Tatum said. “We watched a lot of film throughout the course of the season of games, just areas, things I could improve on. Obviously playmaking was one. Drawing a lot of attention. Just help the team out as much as possible. So he’s done a great job with challenging myself, just the group, in that aspect.”
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In the playoffs, Tatum has increased his assists to 6.1 per game. Because he’s such a gifted scorer and shot-maker, he draws attention from defenses. The Warriors prefer that Tatum not have the basketball. They don’t want him to have 30-point games. But of his 13 assists in Game 1, nine came on teammates hitting 3-pointers.
“Just reading the play,” Tatum said. “They do a great job of helping and things like that. So, you know, obviously it’s just as simple as if you draw two, find somebody that’s open. That’s what I was just trying to do.”
Tatum entered the league as a scorer but continued to refine his game. It won’t surprise anyone if he’s one of the rare players who average at least 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists next season — and is an MVP candidate like former Washington coach Scott Brooks predicted a year ago.
His high school coach, Frank Bennett at Chaminade in St. Louis, never doubted Tatum’s playmaking ability.
“Jayson has always done things at an exceptional level,” Bennett said, “but he wants to win. If that means he has to facilitate on a night like Game 1, he’s going to do whatever it takes. He’s a smart player. Even back to our days, there were times — he averaged almost 30 points as a senior — he would spend first quarters trying to facilitate and get some of the other guys involved. He has that in him. He’ll do anything to help his team win.”
Bennett said that as Tatum has developed into a premier scorer and with defenses trying to stop him, “it forced him to figure out how to adjust his game. Fortunately, he plays with other players who are effective offensively that sometimes it’s him breaking the defense down and drawing two, three defenders and finding the open man.”
And Celtics veteran Al Horford saw it when they were teammates in Tatum’s rookie season.
“It’s such a challenge for guys like him, you know, top players in the league that are expected to score, to play-make, to defend, all those things,” Horford said. “And Jayson does all those things.
“His playmaking has gotten better steadily. … It just shows his growth. Even from earlier in the year, he just has continued to get better. He’s the kind of guy that he’s going to figure it out. One way or another, he’s going to figure it out. We put a lot on him and he delivers. That’s what he does.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.