Four games through the Celtics’ NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, it started to become clear that even though Jayson Tatum had leaped the tier of the NBA’s elite scorers, improvement was a never-ending journey.
Tatum’s strengths were part of the reason the Celtics were able to get as far as they did. He harnessed his ability to blow by defenders, get into the paint, collapse a defense, finish at the rim, draw fouls or make plays for teammates, along with the threat of creating a shot for himself from 3-point range.
But the Warriors had seen plenty of elite scorers at the peak of their powers through a championship window that still hasn’t closed, and they’ve found ways to exploit their weaknesses.
The more Tatum turned the ball over, the more he threw himself into the paint but didn’t get the whistle he was looking for, and the more he fired up side-step threes that didn’t find the net, the more glaring his weakness became.
Then-coach Ime Udoka was straightforward about it after the Celtics dropped Game 3. Tatum went 9 for 23 from the floor, 3 for 9 from 3-point range, and 5 for 6 from the free throw line. Nineteen of his shots came from beyond the arc or in the paint.
”What I would say is don’t be opposed to taking twos,” Udoka said at the time. “Some pull-up jumpers, some of those things, instead of going all the way to the rim. It doesn’t have to be either/or as far as that.
”We talked about the balance, how much we rely on him to score and get other guys involved. Sometimes that balance leads to taking some shots or over-penetrating when he has a clean pull-up or two. Nothing wrong with the floater, midrange pull-up to get yourself going, especially when the crowd is sitting there at the rim.”
The logic made sense. It wasn’t that Tatum didn’t have a midrange game. But his was made in the image of Kobe Bryant. The Mamba Mentoring Program was a special thing for players like DeMar DeRozan and Devin Booker — scorers who make difficult shots look easy. Bryant’s midrange game was a surgical execution of post-ups, footwork, and turnaround jumpers based on how talented he was as a one-on-one player.
But what Tatum was missing was a reliable scoring option inside the 3-point line but outside of the paint to use in the pick-and-roll when he’s used the screen to shed his defender and when the opposing big man is dropped close to the basket to stop him from getting to the rim.
Whether it was a midrange pull-up or a floater, Tatum had to add a new shot to his bag. Clearly, a midrange game isn’t something you can just pull out of a hat in the middle of the Finals. But it is something you can build over an offseason. As the Celtics processed their Finals loss, Udoka’s message was, “Don’t come back the same.”
Through the first four games of this season, Tatum’s scoring said he took that message to heart. He threw 35 points at the 76ers in the season opener, came back with 29 against the Heat, hung 40 on the Magic, and took it easy on the Bulls with 26. He scored the most points by a Celtic through three games since Larry Bird in 1984-85. He joined Bird and Paul Pierce as the only Celtics to score at least 25 points in each of the first four games of a season.
But look closely at how Tatum is scoring and you’ll see the subtle difference that could unlock another level for the 24-year-old wing. Tatum has been sprinkling in the floaters and pull-ups that Udoka was talking about.
In the second quarter against the 76ers, he used a screen from Noah Vonleh on the left side of the floor and attacked big man Joel Embiid. Instead of putting his head down and trying to beat Embiid to the basket, Tatum weaved right, found a crevice in the lane, and lofted a righthanded floater that was already in the air before Embiid could do anything about it.
It looked natural. It looked like something Tatum worked on to make a part of his game. Last year, seeing Tatum break out a floater was like seeing Tacko Fall pull up from 3-point range. But so far this season, Tatum has been intentional about making it a part of his arsenal.
He went to the floater at least once in each of the first four games. He made 4 of 6. The midrange game was never dead, it was just difficult. Tatum is one of just 44 players who have even taken at least 200 midrange shots in a season over the past three years. Only eight of those players shot over 50 percent. Tatum topped out at 38.7 percent in 2020-21. But the players on that short list have made the in-between game their signature.
Chris Paul has shot over 50 percent from midrange each of the past three seasons with an elbow pull-up that is almost automatic. Trae Young led the league in scoring last season not solely because of his long-range sniping, but because of a floater he went to 369 times and used to keep defenses honest.
In the first round of the playoffs last season, the Celtics built an entire game plan around keeping Kevin Durant from coming off pindown screens and pulling up for elbow jumpers because they knew that was free money for Durant (55.5 percent from midrange last season). DeRozan’s basketball identity is defined by his disdain for shooting threes and his commitment to scoring in midrange.
Last season showed Tatum is among those players as a scorer. The Finals showed he still has room to grow. The first four games of this season showed he’s willing to work to tap into more of his potential.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.