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Jayson Tatum Embraces Forgoing MVP Award to Win a Championship

Joe Mazzulla said earlier this season that he believed Jayson Tatum would rather win a championship than the MVP award. Tatum did, however, express his desire in the past to add that top individual award to his list of accomplishments, shaking off last year’s fourth-place finish in May by joking that he has 15 years remaining to secure an MVP.

Basketball Reference and an early season straw poll by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps revealed another neck-and-neck race between last year’s top finalists Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic for the award, with voting mainstays Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo also ahead of Tatum in the reference predictor. Emerging annual contenders Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tyrese Haliburton also made cases similar to Tatum’s in the early going, with Tatum finishing sixth in the straw poll by earning only one first-place vote.

Yet the weeks since that poll dropped only further solidified the Boston Celtics’ standing as prohibitive favorites in the east, if not the NBA, given both Tatum’s array of skills and the depth of talent around him. The latter dynamic inevitably hurts him, as it did in recent years, while Tatum’s consistency night-to-night also falls short of the few players more talented than him in the league. This week, nonetheless, featured Tatum shutting down Gilgeous-Alexander after volunteering to guard him late in Boston’s near 18-point fourth quarter comeback at Oklahoma City and scoring 38 points in 38 minutes to down the Pacers, 118-101, after Kristaps Porziņģis exited with an eye injury.

Tatum, after, sat comfortable with potentially missing out on MVP this year. Boston just won — again.

“I don’t really look for that praise, I guess, anymore,” Tatum said. “I’ve accomplished a lot in my career and I’m truly at the point where I want to get over that hump, I want to get back to the Finals, I want to help us win a championship. What I’m doing, I might not win MVP, but I’m just trying to help us continue to be the best team in the league and do my part. If people recognize that, they see it, then I appreciate it. If they don’t, that’s ok.”

Mazzulla made an effort throughout the start of the season to emphasize the little things Tatum does, whether spacing in the corner to allow the Derrick White and Porziņģis pick-and-roll to develop in crunch time against Detroit, becoming a willing screener or playing off-ball, that help this Celtics team win and succeed. He’s stressed Tatum’s availability, ability to score and impact the game in many ways, while not letting his shooting define him. Tatum began the season on a pull-up shooting slump he shook in big ways in recent weeks, including Saturday’s 8-for-13 outburst from deep at Indiana.

Porziņģis exited the game after 6:14 when Aaron Nesmith poked him in the eye. White struggled, uncharacteristically turning the ball over and fouling. Jrue Holiday scored only scored eight points and the bench collectively provided 28. Tatum and Jaylen Brown would have to score roughly 25-30 points each to win comfortably and they reached 69 combined, earning their 25th career game where each player scored 30 points. Tatum focused on playmaking and shooting, scoring another six assists, while Brown broke down Haliburton and other mismatches from the mid-range. Becoming more comfortable giving the game what it needs, both dove into their comfortable scoring bag, but Tatum also described moments where he set multiple screens for White in a row. He and Mazzulla discussed ways to manipulate defenses and play within the new-look offense in film sessions.

“That’s what happens when you have a guy like him is you take him for granted sometimes,” Mazzulla said when a Tatum question didn’t come until nearly five minutes into his presser. “It’s so interesting that when you have a guy for so long … it’s easy when you get new toys or you have different things that we want to talk about, it’s actually the ultimate compliment. I was telling him, when you get to the point where you’re so good from a basketball standpoint, and you want to get better and you have such high character … they start to just see it as, oh, you’re supposed to do that. His growth as a player in the last month has exponentially jumped. The patience he’s playing with on drives, his potential assist average, his screening, his ability to know he needs his teammates to make them better … he had 38, 14 and six. If another player in the league does that, that’s all they talk about.”

The Celtics took a 6-0 lead and never trailed against the Pacers, but 18 turnovers unleashed the Pacers’ transition attack and Boston didn’t draw a single first half free throw attempt to slow the game down. Tatum hit 2-of-3 from deep early and fell to 2-of-6 in the second before turning the ball over twice in the closing minutes to allow Indiana back from down 16 to within nine at halftime and eventually two at the start of the third. He redirected the ball inside the arc to Horford and Brown, stayed aggressive from three and worked into his mid-range game.

The Pacers played a defensive style that contrasted how Boston saw most teams trying to stop them to begin the year. They sold out on slowing the Celtics from three, so instead of seeing crowds around the basket to pass out from, Indiana gave Boston driving lanes and single coverage at the rim. Brown’s in-between game and Tatum’s power drive past Bennedict Mathurin made easy work of that approach after halftime, helping generate 19 second half free throws and rebuilding a double-digit lead. Mazzulla, despite all the scoring, again stressed the little things.

“I think it’s important to be a well-rounded, effective basketball player and not be defined by one thing,” Tatum said. “That’s another area where he’s growing, just because he’s missing those doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t take them, but it also means he’s not limited to those and you’re seeing the free throws, you’re seeing the catch-and-shoot, you’re seeing the post-ups, you’re seeing the off-ball. So it’s just not being defined by that, it’s being defined by every game’s going to present different challenges and you’ve got to be aware of what the challenges are and what the opportunities are.”

 

 

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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