The Celtics are rounding themselves into top form as the season’s final stretch approaches. The only obstacle left is freeing their best player from his post All-Star Game slump.
Jayson Tatum has slipped a bit in the past weeks, but he has responded with strong back-to-back games against the Kings and Pacers before sitting out Sunday’s win over the Spurs.
While Tatum has stepped up other aspects of his game — averaging nearly 10 rebounds and 5.2 assists — since the break, he has struggled from the 3-point line, shooting 29.4 percent from beyond the arc, well below his career and season average.
Knocking down 3-pointers makes the game easier for him, forcing defenders away from the basket and opening up the floor. Tatum has tried to get himself going from the 3-point line early in games, to little success.
In the first half of games since the All-Star Break, Tatum is making just 26.1 percent of his triples. Tatum has warmed up in second halves — making 34.1 percent — but it’s obvious that the 3-point shot has been his biggest struggle in a career season.
“Upset me? Nah, it’s part of it,” Tatum said about his 3-point issues. “There’s certain clips where my balance was off or the ball was too high on the release. If I didn’t get my legs underneath me, it was short. Those are some things you can correct. And some just feel great and don’t go in. That’s kind of part of it.
“I always feel like the next one is going in. And I’m sure it will.”
The pull-up 3-pointer has given Tatum particular trouble. According to NBA Stats, Tatum is shooting 28.6 percent on his pull-up threes this season. He hit 33.4 percent of those same shots last season.
“I think I just got to be more aware of [when] my release is too high,” he said. “I’ve got to get a good pick up coming off screens or coming in transition. That’s where a lot of it comes from, just making sure you get a good pick up, making sure the ball is low and close to your body.”
In the past two games, Tatum was 27 for 49 from the field, but 5 of 16 from the 3-point line. He’s doing most of his work in the paint and midrange. Tatum is an elite midrange shooter but there are times where he disregards that shot for threes or a chance to get to the free throw line by attacking the rim.
The good news for Celtics faithful is Tatum has not allowed the other aspects of his game to slip. He’s averaging a career high in rebounds and assists. Against the Jazz, who trapped Tatum each time he touched the ball in the frontcourt, the emphasis was on passing to open teammates instead of forcing shots.
The MVP buzz on Tatum has dissipated considerably because of his post-All-Star slump but he still leads the NBA in points scored and is approaching the 10,000-point plateau for his career — a mark he should reach early next season.
He also has the opportunity to break Larry Bird’s single-season scoring record and become the first Celtic to average 30 points per game. He is at 30.1 entering Tuesday’s game against the Wizards.
Tatum was not listed on the injury report, suggesting he’s healthy and able to play in a key game against the Wizards. Teammate Jaylen Brown was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 31.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists as the Celtics won all three games in that span.
Brown is showing he’s playoff ready with his recent stretch and the Celtics are perhaps the NBA’s best team with a premium Tatum. It’s an important week for the Celtics with Tuesday’s tricky game against the Wizards preceding Thursday’s showdown against the top-seeded Bucks and a rematch with the Jazz on Friday.
The Celtics are hoping a couple of days off — Tatum hasn’t played or practiced since Friday — will allow him to recuperate for the stretch run. Tatum changed his approach over the past few games by being more aggressive in the paint, but eventually he hopes those 3-point shots will fall and his offensive arsenal will be complete in time for the postseason.