Jayson Tatum has become a better and more efficient scorer because he’s focused less on scoring.
It sounds like a contradiction. Scorers focus on scoring. They take hundreds of shots per day from the same spots to master the art of putting the ball in the basket.
But Tatum has improved immensely on his decision making: when to take shots, when to pass the ball, when to take a 3-pointer and when to attack the basket.
It’s one thing to admire Kobe Bryant, watch his highlights and mimic his moves. It’s another to learn exactly how Kobe outfoxed defenses, how he got to his favorable spots, how he drew multiple defenders to create opportunities for open teammates.
Tatum is mastering the game mentally. It’s been an arduous process, filled with questionable decisions and shot chucking at times. But his 49-point night on just 25 shots was a virtuoso performance in the Celtics’ 134-121 win over the Miami Heat.
Tatum was never out of control. He never hunted bad shots. He scored within the flow of the Celtics offense. There’s a distinct difference between scoring and scoring efficiently. Average shooters can rack up points if they put up enough shots.
And more aggressive defenses have encouraged Tatum to improve his approach to scoring. The more he passes the ball to an open teammate, the more he finds Sam Hauser open for a corner three or swings the ball to Al Horford for a hook, the more defenses have to respect his teammates.
So that defender is now helping on Tatum from 5 feet away instead of 3. Basketball is a game of spacing. Despite the athletic evolution of professional basketball, the increased size of the players because of state-of-the art weight conditioning programs, the size of the basketball floor is the same as it was 60 years ago.
That practically forces teams to space properly in order to create scoring opportunities. Tatum has to make the proper decisions and rely on his ferocious work ethic to hit those open shots because they’re only open for split seconds.
Tatum was 8 for 12 from the 3-point line. The Celtics were 29 points better than the Heat with Tatum on the floor. Miami attempted to confuse the Celtics with a matchup zone defense, challenging Tatum even further to make the right decisions.
“That’s how it’s been most of the season,” Tatum said. “I think that’s kind of how we play, and they were in a zone, so it led to a lot of 2-on-1 actions, finding the open man and just kind of being in the right spot. And I seen a couple of shots go down, so just shooting in rhythm.”
Games like these are becoming commonplace for Tatum. It was his 14th career regular season game of 40 or more points and third this season. He is shooting a career-high 48.8 percent from the field and dishing out a career-best 4.5 assists.
Celtics faithful have been clamoring for years for Tatum to turn into a complete player, be more than about scoring, be a prolific scorer at a lower volume. Tatum has attempted just one-half shot more per game than last season, yet his scoring average is up nearly 5 points because he has become more efficient and more aggressive in drawing fouls.
“It’s all about just making the right plays,” Tatum said. “When you’re open, shoot it. And the right play can be different. I said that a lot.”
Earlier Wednesday, Tatum gave a just-released 6-inch action figure of himself to his son Deuce. Hasbro released this “action figure” of just eight NBA players, and Tatum was part of that group. The accolades, the adulation and the “action figures” are coming fast for the 24-year-old. His game is growing exponentially and he’s trying to digest the success as he catapults into a top 3 NBA player.
“When you ask me about it, it is kind of surreal that I do have an action figure,” Tatum said. “Deuce thinks it’s normal. He’s used to seeing Daddy on TV and Fatheads and on commercials, on toys. So he said, ‘Oh thank you’ and put it with the rest of them.”
Tatum doesn’t allow the praise to impact the bigger goal of winning a championship and more importantly, coach Joe Mazzulla said he hasn’t had to harness Tatum’s game or his approach to fit the team concept. He’s all in.
“I think he’s managing the team concept by continuing to do what’s right,” Mazzulla said. “He’s getting catch-and-shoot shots, he’s screening, he’s running the floor, he’s getting to the free throw line. So the fact that his game is versatile, a lot of the stuff he does open plays up for others as well. There’s about 15 or 18 points a game he’s getting because of things he’s doing without the ball. So I think it’s just as much about that.
“How do you play because you’re a great player? And how do you make the people around you better?”
So far so good for Tatum. He has become a better student of the game, understanding that scoring isn’t the only thing that impacts winning. And when Tatum does all those little things, the game comes so easy to him.