Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was in the midst of a scorching stretch of his breakout season when the NBA was halted due to COVID-19 on March 11. Fresh off his first All-Star selection, the third year forward reached the 30-point mark in nine of his last 14 games, including a powerful 30-point night in a March 10 win at Indiana, the last regular season game the Celtics played.
Now, as the season resumes in Orlando four months later, the hope is that Tatum will be able to pick up where he left off. He was asked Friday night if he feels just as good on the court now as he did then.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t played a game.”
The Celtics are still two weeks away from a real game, and a week away from scrimmaging against the Oklahoma City Thunder. So for now, Tatum is just doing all he can to prepare for his next moment in the spotlight.
“I think how I look when I shoot by myself or in practice is totally different than actually playing in a game, playing against another team,” he said. “I feel like my rhythm is coming back each and every day. I think it would be hard for me to say or give a percentage to how close I think I am to [what I was] the second half of the season. So I’m really just excited. I’m enjoying being at practice, seeing the guys, playing with them. This is the most I’ve enjoyed practice since I’ve been in the NBA, just happy to be back playing basketball.”
Tatum said it’s been important to block out noise, both from those who have pegged him as the game’s next superstar, and from those who believe his surge this year was just a fluke.
The Celtics were scheduled for their first true intrasquad scrimmage on Friday night, and maybe that would offer some clues about where he stood.
“I’m ready to play,” Tatum said. “Obviously, I know it probably won’t look perfect when we first start playing. And that’s not the goal. The goal is, whenever the playoffs start, that’s when you really want to hit your stride. Obviously, we don’t have as much time as we do in a regular season, but I’m sure it’s not going to look perfect when we first go out there and scrimmage, or the first seeding games. But once it gets to playoff time that’s when you really want to start clicking individually and as a group.”
Head coach Brad Stevens said he planned to use each player for about 18-20 minutes in Friday night’s 24-minute scrimmage. He said these settings are essential for rebuilding small but important habits, like where to catch the ball and use proper angles on screens, and how to maintain proper defensive technique. Also, there is an emphasis on conditioning after this lengthy layoff.
In the film session that preceded Friday’s scrimmage, Stevens told his players that if they took “shortcuts” in the live session, it would not have much use.
“So this should be a night where we sleep easy,” he said, “because we’ll be exhausted.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach