ORLANDO — Jaylen Brown poured in a put back to cap a 5-0 third quarter closing run where he both escaped his first half slump and reestablished a Celtics lead. Boston got away from Jayson Tatum and Brown into the fourth, seeing both not score until midway through the fourth after allowing the Magic to tie the game. Tatum had already scored 30 points before the layoff.
When they found him again, Tatum made quick work finishing over Paolo Banchero and the Magic zone on a post jump shot. He caught the ball next time down from Marcus Smart, in the same position to fake Banchero and power through Wendell Carter Jr. for free throws. That activity inside the arc capped a night where Tatum ran for easy transition layups, exploded past Magic perimeter defenders and made Orlando’s professionals look like amateurs trying to guard him.
Tatum scored 40 points in the 126-120 win on 14-for-21 shooting, Boston moving to 3-0 and Tatum increasing his scoring average to 34.7 points per game on 58.7% shooting. He’s only hitting 33.3% of his threes, but relying on them less as he reaches the free throw line 8.3 times per night. The game looks easy for him, and he’s feeling that too after a season where he learned to read defenses while drawing extra pressure.
Now, he’s seeing regular season defensive tendencies from opponents and how they fall short of playoff intensity, taking advantage early on offense to beat slow reactions. Tatum is the most efficient transition player in basketball, with the highest possible efficiency of 2.00 points per possession, shooting 90.9% and creating free throws at a 23% rate.
“(I’m) just kind of reading, trying to figure out where the advantage will be at, because I know how hard it is to score in the playoffs and the Finals,” Tatum told CLNS Media on Saturday. “Everybody’s focusing on you, so being quite honest you realize in the regular season it’s not as intense and there’s a little more mishaps on defense from other teams and things like that. You still draw a lot of attention, but getting out in transition, maybe get an offensive rebound, screen a lot more. You draw so much, maybe they might get messed up and follow the ball and leave you open. Anytime you got daylight, you’ve got to shoot it, obviously, and then fourth quarter comes and it’s time to make plays.”
“It’s just kind of reading the game, and going into it with that mindset, whereas past years wasn’t thinking ahead as much. I’m still young, but I’ve played a lot of basketball, so I kind of know the flow of the game and how it goes.”
That Finals experience became a training camp theme for Tatum, who embraced running ahead of defenses in the preseason to find mismatches early, or space to the corners and allow his drivers to break down defenses and find him for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Tatum plays a role like he did early in his career on some possessions, standing as a shooter receiving looks from his guards. More often, he’s a whole new version of himself, starting 19-for-24 shooting inside five feet on 8.0 tries per game, up from 6.3 last season and 5.7 in 2021. And that’s while driving less, allowing others to initiate.
Through three games, Tatum’s average time per touch is down from 3.78 seconds to 3.37, in line with quick decision maker Derrick White, while Malcolm Brogdon and Smart handle the dribbling. Tatum’s spot up attempts are down by 0.6 possessions per game, he’s initiating 0.8 fewer pick-and-rolls and attacking in isolation 4.3 times each game compared to 4.7 one year ago. Yet he’s leading the league in scoring.
“Jayson, I think he’s doing a good job of playmaking, so when you’re able to play make and also score, it puts a lot of impact on the defense,” Grant Williams, who’s shooting 12-for-14 with three assists from Tatum, told CLNS. “He’s willing to make that pass, so teams are respecting that. So they’re now fanning out to guys that can knock shots down, and allowing more opportunity for himself. For us, we’ve just got to keep making shots to make sure we keep spreading the floor for him so they can create, both him and JT, but we’re doing a good job of playing with each other this season in terms of kicking the ball ahead, playing with pace and it allows everyone to have equal opportunities of success.”
Tatum again shook off complaints about a no call where he fell alongside Boston’s bench, who screamed at the official in his defense, led by Williams. Tatum went on to hit 10-of-11 from the field, driving for a smooth finish, catching and hitting a three on some inside-out action from White.
Then, Tatum coasted for an easy transition layup and three to cap the first quarter with 15 points. Tatum initiated a three-man passing sequence along the perimeter to create an early three for White on his way to 27 points, eventually scoring his only assist of the night by hitting a rolling White for a vicious slam at the rim.
He flashed his newly-effective floater before halftime after initially seeing Brown botch an opportunity to play the two-man game, passing and repositioning himself in the corner while Brown drove into traffic. They fixed the play on the next trip down, passing back and forth before Tatum barreled downhill toward the basket into a finish.
That all goes without mentioning his defense, locking in on Banchero in isolation to tip the ball off him and out-of-bounds. He rotated for a late stop on Bol Bol after the former Celtics big man tortured the team he spent time with recovering last season. Then, he capped off the night reading the game to seal the win by freeing White for a three-point play with a screen and directly for his highlight flush.
“(It’s) film and just playing. Just going through seasons, going through games where you’re the primary ball-handler, or certain games where you screened a lot more. Just learning from that, and that’s the best way to learn, you’ve just got to go through it, and there’s just so many lessons I learned from last season from starting off slow to picking it up to getting to the Finals. There are just so many lessons that we’ve learned that the only way to get better is to apply them to the next season, which myself and everybody’s trying to do.”