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Jayson Tatum Solves Jazz Double Teams with 39 Points in Celtics Win

BOSTON — When Kelly Olynyk joined Ochai Agbaji to double-team Jayson Tatum at the point of attack in the first quarter, Tatum dribbled backward, turned and fired a pass toward Derrick White, leading him downhill into a floater. The pass marked one of his three assists in the Celtics’ 122-114 win over the Jazz on Friday. Tatum also committed no turnovers and initiated plays and set himself up to score 39 points.

“S***, they doubled me as soon as I crossed half court every time,” Tatum said. “It made me be patient, at the same time, make quicker decisions. Any time I had an ounce of opportunity, it was either shoot it, drive it, or kick it. So it just made me play faster, I would catch it, then coming up, dribbling the ball, really just surveying, I knew the double team was coming, I was trying to drag it out for the most part, so when I delivered the pass, they had a longer close-out and it just gave us more opportunities.”

Jazz head coach Will Hardy’s aggressive perimeter doubles limited Tatum to 15 points in nearly 39 minutes on 4-for-12 shooting, taking him off the ball in a stunning 118-117 upset earlier this month. He continued that approach in Boston, greeting Tatum, who he coached last year as Ime Udoka’s lead assistant, following another back-to-back where the Celtics planned to rest Tatum. After a postponed flight from Milwaukee on Thursday night disrupted the team’s preparation on Friday, Tatum and teammates decided he should play.

Tatum largely played off-ball, screening and trying to find mismatches inside the three-point arc through the first four minutes before he found a lane to roll for a finish. Simone Fontecchio and Kris Dunn didn’t provide the best wall of resistance, but Walker Kessler’s presence at the rim made Tatum’s early moves toward the basket impressive.

Still, teams haven’t thrown as many doubles toward Tatum on the perimeter this year with so much shooting around him. He ranks outside the top-20 in double teams faced per game after finishing among the leaders last year.

“I like to double-team Jayson because he averages 30 points per game and is an MVP candidate and I’ve watched a lot of basketball where teams guard him one-on-one, and will adjust later, but if you wait until Jayson gets going, there aren’t that many adjustments that are going to work,” Hardy told CLNS Media. “Players like that, as a coach, I would like to try to be proactive defensively and not react to them. If you hope with Jayson Tatum, it’s not going to go well. I had first-hand experience being with him last year and it is sort of shocking, at times, how few people double-team him, but he’s a willing passer and he’s a good passer.”

Friday’s game showed the limitations those doubles face in limiting Tatum, particularly when they’re visible early in the shot clock. When Malcolm Brogdon entered the game, the Jazz perimeter defenders also helped aggressively on him, leaving Kessler isolated on Tatum on the perimeter to give up a three. Boston’s good spacing helped Tatum, pulling Damian Jones from he lane into their second unit. Tatum’s willingness to play away from the ball, inside the arc, instead of floating keyed Boston’s ability to create quick shots for him.

The doubles most effectively limited his shot opportunities late in the second quarter, when White began missing and Jaylen Brown fell to 1-for-7. He escaped the slump with back-to-back driving dunks, while Tatum got back on the ball to execute a two-for-one into halftime, pushing the Celtics ahead 57-51 with only nine shot attempts.

“There’s been more double teams this year,” Tatum said. “Most teams wait until I’m hitting shots or it’s a matchup they don’t like. Will was being an a**hole, so he was double-teaming me to start both games. I knew it was going to happen. I took it as a challenge. Play the right way. Figure it out. Still impact the game.”

Tatum also started strong in Utah while the Celtics built a 19-point lead they’d squander in the second half due, in part, to Tatum only managing four shot attempts in 18 minutes. Hardy called for later doubles, which seem to impact the star more when they appear unpredictably around the rim, rather than appearing in plain sight on the perimeter. Bigger teams that can stack the paint with long, active help defenders deterred Tatum more than traps this year. Edwards gave the Jazz some, but not a significant ability to do so. Cleveland, Orlando and others can.

The Celtics counteracted Utah’s defense by shooting 8-for-17 from three in the third quarter while Tatum rested. Brogdon tortured the Jazz with pull-up shooting and Grant Williams hit 3-of-4 shots from three to finish a difficult March strong. Having those kinds of outlets helps. Trusting them while finding his own shots in spots takes Tatum to a new level.

“It’s just growth,” Blake Griffin told CLNS. “The ball always finds the best players, and he did a great job accepting the double team, getting off of it and then continuing to play after that, and that’s so hard to guard. The reason teams double is they hope to get it out of your hands and you relax, and he didn’t relax for one second. It’s almost like when he got off the ball, he was engaged more.”

With a double-digit lead in hand entering the fourth, Tatum torched Juan Toscano-Anderson for a cutting finish. Tatum escaped a double late in the clock to score a layup left-handed. Olynyk forced him to spin into a fadeaway three as the shot clock ticked away midway through the final frame, while his closeout late in another shot clock on Tatum in the corner missed and allowed Tatum to set and hit another three.

Mazzulla wanted Tatum to take difficult shots to change how defenses guarded him in spite of the lower efficiency those attempts created. It changed how teams guarded both Tatum and the team. On Friday, his passing and off-ball allowed him to score in droves late, along with a three-point shooting touch that’s emerging for the stretch run. His 5-for-8 effort followed an 8-for-10 finish in Milwaukee less than 24 hours earlier.

“The first game, he only took 12 shots when we played him, I thought our double teams were very good. I thought tonight, he did a good job of going away from the double team early, he got us probably three or four times tonight where he saw the double coming and he went quickly away from it,” Hardy said. “We didn’t do a good enough job containing the ball, but Jayson’s a hell of a player.”

“I think tonight, he got away from us going away from the double team, was able to draw some fouls and obviously was super efficient, he’s 12-for-17. We lost track of him a few times off the ball. He made us pay every time. He’s a special player. They have great players around him. You know, you have to decide how you’re willing to lose, if that makes sense. I talked to these guys about that a lot this year. I don’t want to watch Jayson play one-on-one and have 50 points.”



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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