In the midst of a grinding game against the Philadelphia 76ers, in which Jaylen Brown looked sluggish and a step slow, lacking confidence in his recovering hamstring, Jayson Tatum walked up to Brown after a turnover, patting his teammate on the back of the head and offering encouragement.
Brown labored most of the evening, finishing with 9 points on 3-for-11 shooting. Celtics coach Ime Udoka said Brown didn’t complain about reinjuring himself. It was just one of those nights and Tatum said he could relate.
It’s been an interesting week for Tatum, who after Friday’s difficult loss to the San Antonio Spurs, accepted responsibility for the team’s poor performance because he knows he is the unquestioned most talented player on the team and the first target of criticism.
What’s interesting about the Celtics’ past two wins is that Tatum has recorded a season-high in assists in one and a career-best in rebounds in the other. Udoka has stressed since taking the job that he wants Tatum and Brown to become better playmakers and enhance the offense.
The Celtics offense has been wildly inconsistent at best, but the encouraging sign is Tatum has put real effort into contributing to the team when he’s not scoring.
“I seen a report the other day that said I was a selfish player,” Tatum said. “That seems pretty unselfish of me. Whatever it takes to win. More often than not (the ball) is going to be in my hands but we play 82-something games a season and there’s going to be certain night where you space the floor, take a certain defender out of the action and see what we get.”
For a 23-year-old two-time All-Star, there may not be a more criticized athlete in this market than Tatum. If he says how elite he wants to be, he’s considered selfish. If he takes questionable shots, he’s got Kobe-itis. If he doesn’t shoot enough, he’s not being aggressive. If he scores 50, he’s consumed with his numbers, not team success.
Tatum hears all of this criticism but has made a concerted effort to improve and become more of a team player. It’s an evolution. Very few players enter the league with that type of unselfishness that automatic makes teammates better. It’s a learned characteristic.
It’s been mostly a miserable offensive season for Tatum. The career 45.2 percent shooting is at 39.7 percent this season. A career 38.8 percent 3-point shooter is at 31.9. It’s the most Tatum has struggled offensively since entering the NBA and the Celtics hope his shots start falling but until then, Udoka wants Tatum to find other ways to contribute. So far, Tatum has been more of a playmaker.
“For sure (I’m satisfied), because I contributed to winning,” Tatum said about his assists and rebounds the past two games. “I still dominated, still impacted the game at a high level without necessarily scoring 30, 40 points. And still winning, so I go home and sleep well tonight.”
It’s already been a difficult season for Brown, who dealt with COVID-19 that affected him for several games before straining his right hamstring. Against the 76ers, Brown played with a sleeve covering his right calf. He’s trying to get back to his previous form but injuries and confidence have prevented that.
On Wednesday, Brown didn’t seem like himself and there are going to be games, perhaps the after effects of COVID or the hamstring that he looks like a shell of himself. Seeing Brown put his head down after being ripped late in the first half by Seth Curry, Tatum approached with encouragement. It was a sign of leadership.
“I told him to ‘keep your head up,’” Tatum said. “There are times when I am down and he sees it and I see when he’s down. I know how hard he works and how bad he wants it and having COVID and the hamstring injury and trying to come back, I know how tough it could be. And how bad you want something and it may not be going that way at the moment, how frustrating it could be and you’re trying to find a way to win.
“We’re all human. We get down on ourselves at times and when you see that you tell him it’s going to be all right. Still trying to still be himself because we’re at our best when he’s the best version of Jaylen Brown and sometimes guys need to be reminded of that.”
Tatum is never going to silence all his detractors but he is making strides to become a better leader, teammate and the playmaker Udoka has asked. That may be one of the more encouraging parts of this bumpy season.