Celtics forward Jayson Tatum drew raves as a rookie last season thanks in large part to his excellent 3-point shooting. But he continues to evolve, and over the last two weeks, with the Celtics’ outside shooters scuffling, Tatum has had more of a rim-running mind-set than before.
“I think that the more we can get him attacking the basket, I think the more he’s a threat of going to the free-throw line, the more a threat of drawing multiple defenders for kick-outs, and I just think that opens up everything for everybody,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before a 117-109 loss to the Knicks on Wednesday night at the Garden.
“He’s such a talented offensive guy that that’s a huge thing for us as a team. We haven’t been great in the paint, and we certainly haven’t gotten to the line, so we need our most talented offensive people to be able to get there some.”
Over the first 10 games of the season, Tatum was 11 for 17 on drives to the basket. Over the last seven games entering Wednesday’s game, he was 12 for 24, a notable increase in attempts over a shorter span.
“I just wasn’t hitting a lot of shots early, so I just figured I’d try to get some easy ones and get to the basket,” said Tatum, who had 15 points, including 6 of 9 from the free-throw line, and added eight rebounds in 29 minutes. “And I’m a pretty good free-throw shooter, so getting fouled is a good thing.”
Before getting 32 free-throw attempts against the Knicks, The Celtics were averaging just 19.4 foul shots per game, ranking 29th in the NBA. Tatum is averaging just 3.8, which leads the team.
Tatum added some strength last summer, and he said that has made him more comfortable banging bodies in the paint.
“And I’m just playing quicker,” he said. “Not giving a defense time to set up. So when I catch it I can just take the angle they give me.”
Of course, the 3-point shot will remain an essential part of Tatum’s arsenal. But the 20-year-old is eager to see how his dribble-drive game can grow.
“We haven’t been shooting great,” he said. “We will eventually, but until then, we’ve got to try to get to the basket.”
Center Aron Baynes started against the Knicks in place of Gordon Hayward for the second consecutive game.
“If you looked at our rankings right now you’d say, ‘Why would you start a defender with the first group?’ Because the first group is guarding great and the second group’s guarding great,” Stevens said. “I think it allows guys to play on offense in their more natural positions and there’s a comfort level to that, and as we continue to try to grow and get to the best version of ourselves, we’re going to have to be able to play both ways. We’re going to have to be able to play small. We’re going to have to be able to play big. But maybe guys can find a bit more of a flow to that.”
Hayward finished with 19 points in 31.35 of playing time. Baynes was scoreless in 11:45.
Al Horford, who was listed on the injury report before the game as probable, was cleared to play against the Knicks. Horford played 35.17, collecting 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.