BOSTON — When the Celtics showed up to training camp this fall, Marcus Smart addressed his full-time point guard role and said it’d be easy to set up Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. It looked that way on opening night for Boston’s offense, connecting near-seamlessly, generating 103 offensive sets and scoring over 108 points per 100 possessions.
Brown ran the fast-break offense and passed back and forth with Tatum often, 21 times between them. The Celtics found Grant Williams for a trio of threes to spark a comeback push that fell short into double overtime. Boston played the offensive style Ime Udoka imagined in spite of the loss. Nothing — health, ball movement and focus — persisted consistently after that through a .500, 20-game start. The team’s assist rate has fluctuated and the offense stagnated.
Now, after back-to-back wins over Toronto and Philadelphia, who Boston beat 88-87 on Wednesday, the Celtics are 12-10, tied with Cleveland and Atlanta for the sixth seed and looking ahead at a difficult west coast swing with full health. Will it all last? That’s been the biggest question for Tatum, who has only momentarily resembled his past self, while his new coach tries to reform his game. It’s an exercise in patience that’s now become the story of the season. By year’s end, Tatum, even if he has an off year, needs to look like a different player.
“It’s an ongoing thing,” Udoka told CLNS Media on Tuesday. “The simple pass sometimes seems to be the hardest thing to make … (Gregg) Popovich showed Tony Parker film for 15 years of not getting off the ball. So it doesn’t happen overnight. If you have that scoring mentality, and you have the speed and you get downhill, it’s what you look to a lot, but sometimes you miss the simple pass.”
Tatum’s commitment ramped-up this week, with Sunday’s win resembling something closer to a Jimmy Butler pass-only game from him. After a 15-0 collapse in the final three minutes in San Antonio last weekend, Udoka contended the changes he hopes to instill to Boston’s offense will take time. He saw players valuing individual rhythm through a 7-for-35 team shooting start over running Boston’s offense.
Udoka’s commentary about driving downhill, not letting offense impact defense, trusting teammates and making the right read addressed the team in full, but seemed specifically relevant to Tatum throughout the first quarter of the season. Making a scorer a playmaker hasn’t been a straightforward process. It’s one Udoka believes in though. He hasn’t wavered once about Tatum’s ability to eventually become a playmaker. Since day one.
It’s said teams take on the personality of their best player, and this group’s fate, as it was during this week’s wins, will follow their ability to break bad habits, and develop better ones.
“Jayson has a huge burden, and Jayson’s burden is not only the minutes he’s carrying, but also he, on every single possession, is seeing the best defender on every other team,” Brad Stevens said on 98.5 The Sports Hub Thursday. “(Thybulle) was quick to come off the bench last night, because Doc didn’t want to play another possession without Thybulle on (Tatum) … those are all the things you see on a nightly basis, and everything else that he’s doing has grown … there are so few guys in this league that can be good, and be a jack of all trades, that can do it all … he’s got to do it all.”
The Celtics fell to 18th in assist percentage (58.2%) and 24th in offensive rating (105.6) over 22 games as they continue to ride the most tumultuous start to a season of Tatum’s career. Wednesday’s win actually dropped Boston one spot in both rankings.
Tatum dished two assists in the win, though he hit a difficult game-winner and recovered from a 1-of-6 shooting start to finish 9-for-20, with 26 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and his first go-ahead shot in crunch time since Nov. 13 at Cleveland. He got off the ball late, moved it, screened and scored off movement rather than attacking the defense head-on, as he tried to early. Then, he sat defiant against recent criticism by league sources afterward.
“I seen a report the other day that said I was a selfish player,” Tatum said. “That seemed pretty unselfish to me, but whatever it takes for us to win. I guess more often than not it’s going to be in my hands, but we play 82 games in the regular season. There’s going to be certain nights where you might need to space the floor, take the best defender on the floor away from the action.”
Tatum began the year shooting 1-for-10 on potential game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final three minutes of games between early-season overtime games against New York, Charlotte and Washington. He shot 39.7% from the field, 31.9% from three overall, while his share of mid-range shots (22.1%) grew to its largest point since 2018-19. Tatum’s assist rate is down, his turnover percentage is in line with last season and he’s even hitting a career-low 80.8% from the free throw line.
He drove as often as last year and Udoka said the allowed physicality of this early NBA season could’ve impacted him. Boston’s shooting woes around him likely did too, but the Celtics stressed repeatedly, through film sessions and practice, for him to trust teammates. Eventually, it became Tatum’s shooting holding the team back. Grant Williams rose to fourth in the NBA in corner threes (20) and became a 50-40-90 shooter playing off Tatum’s spot passing, as Udoka repeatedly prodded his star.
Get off the ball. Make the decision in 0.5 seconds. Play with pace.
“Ime does a great job of not holding anything back in film sessions,” Williams III told CLNS Media on Wednesday at shootaround. “If someone is to blame or someone is to be pointed out for something, he has no problem doing it. I think that’s the first step as far as building a great relationship with people, being able to point out what they’re doing bad, and also, for the people being able to accept the criticism.”
Habit-building and decision-making will determine how far Tatum can progress this season. Against Toronto, he took advantage of the Raptors’ aggressive help mindset, packing in the lanes due to their lack of height, and he peppered the corner shooters. Tatum also started and finished that game so poorly from the field that he turned toward passing in both sequences, twice finding Smart for three to seal the win. It showed game management Tatum struggled with earlier in the season.
“We showed film today of how good we were (at Toronto),” Udoka told CLNS. “I think it was our highest potential assist game, 60% of our shot were potentially assisted on. So we really moved the ball, got off it well. You look at the other night, when Jayson doesn’t shoot it as well and he impacts the game. They took to heart that video we showed before the game, and we want that carry-over to happen there. Habits are hard to break … (but) you’ve got to keep instilling trust in your teammates.”
Against Philadelphia, Tatum saw Joel Embiid in the lane and struggled to finish earlier, and decided to lean on threes around screens and beating Philly’s smaller wing defenders with pull-up twos over Philly’s drop defense. It was the same formula that downed the 76ers in a sweep in 2020 when Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Udoka faced Boston on the other side.
Boston ran Tatum along the baseline and motion plays, to catch the ball around screens and break right into the mid-range area, the formula for his game-winner over Matisse Thybulle.
Tatum even screened for Brown down the stretch, something we never see the Jays do, on a play where Udoka wanted the ball quickly back in Tatum’s hands to attacking the mismatch. They couldn’t connect and Richardson missed a dump-off into a 15-footer. On another play, the stars connected across the perimeter to set up Williams inside.
Udoka put Horford in post-up positions early in the win, while having him guard the perimeter as he has liberally all season in switches. Smart continues to drive to the basket, not always his most comfortable shot, but action that’s steadied his play-making.
Schröder got used to finish the end of passing sequences as a shooter, hitting two crucial threes as Richardson received stitches in the second half against Philly. Brown, slowly, will step into playmaking too. Everyone’s being asked to change under a new head coach. Tatum’s simply the focal point.
“It’s a different approach with everyone,” Doc Rivers said in Boston on Wednesday. “It’s just not the stars. You have to have an approach with every player, and you have to figured out what that balance is. The superstars have more on their plate, far more than everybody else, and so you have to figure out, individually, what you’ll allow, what you’ll put up with and what you won’t … I had Paul (Pierce) when I got here, and that wasn’t easy early on, but it turned out OK. It took some head-butting a couple times and it was worth it. I think that’s why our relationship is so strong now.”
The Celtics collectively embraced an awkward switching defense that players like Richardson and Schröder had never been part of before. For some, Udoka admitted, it was a completely unnatural way of playing. Even Enes Freedom can take part, for 17 minutes, in holding Philadelphia, a top offense, to 37% from the field.
That defense will need to become the bedrock of competitiveness for an awkward offense leaning on post-ups, mid-rangers and consistently struggling to space the floor. They’ll take baskets where they can get them, turn to Williams III as a security blanket, as Tatum dubbed him Wednesday and those coupled efforts can grind out wins against top teams like Philly.
Championship aspirations aren’t in the cards for this roster. Nudging Tatum closer to a championship player would make this a successful season. Even if the stats look ugly on the way.
“I think we’re starting to understand what we need to do offensively and how we need to play,” Horford said after Boston’s win over Oklahoma City last week. “It’s nice to see that starting to come together. I think there’s still a ways, it’s almost something that has to become that’s like clockwork. We do it in spurts at times, but sometimes we get off to the side a little still in the offensive end. It takes time, but I have been encouraged.”