Jayson Tatum felt relief momentarily during the first quarter when he tossed a pass from the high post to Sam Hauser on the right wing, who drilled a second consecutive three. It set up an overdue comeback performance for his primary backup wing.
The Celtics led by seven points, and the bench began rotating in, allowing Detroit back while shooting 0-for-4. The Pistons spent the rest of the half battling within 10 points, then charged back to a six point deficit in the fourth quarter to keep Tatum on the floor.
Hauser finished with 15 points, six rebounds, an assist and block, hitting 5-of-9 from three in his first career start. Whatever hope that projects toward a reduced dependency on Tatum going forward, it didn’t provide any on Monday. Tatum logged 39 minutes in a 111-99 win, shaking off a 3-for-13 start to finish with 34 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and a block while Jaylen Brown sat with an illness.
Only Pascal Siakam averages more minutes per game this season than Tatum’s 37.3 now, with Anthony Edwards, Mikal Bridges and Julius Randle surpassing Tatum’s 1,905 total minutes in 4-5 extra games played. Joe Mazzulla downplayed concerns about his playing time through back-to-back overtime meetings with the Knicks and Lakers late last month. Don’t play overtime games, he quipped. A blowout over the Nets provided a chance to sit Tatum in the fourth quarter, one the Celtics almost achieved on Monday before a 14-2 Pistons run to begin the fourth.
“Maybe when you go through something and then you learn how to navigate it, you’re better at it when you come back,” Mazzulla said at practice. “Just his natural approach to how do you sustain a level of energy and a level of healthiness throughout the entire season, so I trust how he takes care of his body, I trust the people around him and I trust everything that he does.”
“Will there be moments where we have to cut his minutes down? Yes. Absolutely. I’m not in favor of playing guys until they can’t play anymore. At the same time, I trust his work ethic and I trust the people around him to think that he took what he learned from the Finals and was able to apply it in his summer workouts, in his preseason workouts and in his daily approach to how he takes care of himself.”
Tatum averaged over 35 minutes each of the last two seasons and only missed six games last year and eight in 2020-21. His durability and desire to play differentiated him from a trend toward load management in the NBA, but that emerged for a reason. As he battles a left wrist and multiple finger injuries, Tatum needed to sit out last month’s win at Toronto and since the new year, when he began averaging over 38 MPG, he’s shooting 44.4%, 35.6% from three and turning the ball over 3.2 times each night, above his season average.
It hasn’t helped that Marcus Smart’s injury forced him into more of an on-ball role. He’s averaging 78.7 touches per game over his last seven games, each lasting 4.59 seconds, compared to 73.7 touches averaging 3.66 seconds each before. The Suns forced him into one of his worst shot selection night all season, 3-for-10 from three, 0-for-5 on two-pointers with one restricted zone attempt. Mazzulla saw the Celtics become too pick-and-roll dependent, while the Suns confused him with their defensive coverages.
“I tried to show early, instead of me meeting him coming down to the rim, where he could get a foul, what I tried to do was I tried to almost make it seem like it was a switch on him,” Deandre Ayton told CLNS Media. “But it really wasn’t a switch, so I showed early in the pick-and-roll and hoped that my help side has the big for the roll. That’s where the trust came in and the team, we sold out on Jayson and Brown coming off the pick-and-rolls and let the low man deal with the big man.”
Two days off followed Friday’s frustrating loss, which Tatum later recounted his son Deuce helped calm frustrations after in the locker room. He returned to the floor missing an early three-point attempt and floater in Detroit, He cut to the rim in early offense against Killian Hayes, taking him out to the perimeter and backing him down for four seconds before turning into a post hook miss. Bojan Bogdanovic read his action around a Grant Williams corner flare screen and forced a long two-point air ball and Tatum fell to 0-for-5 soon after.
Other factors haven’t helped Tatum, whether Brown’s inability to lead second units (+17 with Brown on & Tatum off), the overall decline of the early season bench unit’s productivity and the team’s shooting decline. Hauser shot 29.8% from three over his last 29 games entering Monday, Malcolm Brogdon averages only 24.8 MPG and Al Horford and Robert Williams III start together. Luke Kornet got hurt on Friday and Grant is shooting 39.7% from the field in 2023.
That all limits Tatum’s ability to sit through second units, and Boston’s 11.3 points per 100 possession difference with him on the floor versus off of it ranks in the 95th percentile of the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. Bridges, who also logs some of the most minutes of the league, agreed with Tatum’s willingness to log longer minutes.
“You’ve just got to take care of your body, but it’s fun, you’d rather be out there playing than not playing,” Bridges told CLNS Media. “I know he loves to hoop and I know he feels like if he’s out there, they’re gonna have a higher chance of winning, and I feel the same way. You just want to be out there to help your team win. Just take care of body, nutrition and mentally, you want to hoop, you want to have fun, you want to always be out there.”
Tatum worked after the Finals loss and postseason run, where he averaged 41.0 MPG, to change his diet, workout regimen and recovery techniques with trainer Nick Sang in preparation for a larger share of playing time this year. That doesn’t mean the load is preferable, particularly if it is starting to impact Tatum’s play.
He scored 18 points in the third quarter to shut down the Pistons momentarily, hitting 7-of-8 shots, most of them pull-up jumpers, but also a pair of off-balance post finishes and an easier rolling layup. Tatum did all that to push the Celtics ahead by 23 points, and he still needed to return to close out the fourth quarter.
“I just want to play. I love the game, I love playing, I want to play every game,” Tatum said last week. “I feel great. My body feels so much better at this point in the year than it did last season. Last year at this time, I was essentially dealing with a lot more, but I still was figuring out a way to get out there and play. I’ve always felt like I’ve done a great job of taking care of my body, really just having a routine.”
“For all the s*** I give Nick, I give him a lot of credit for us working well together and figuring out what works best for me, and sticking to it. It’s easy to come out and work out on the good days, but in the middle of February, when it’s freezing outside and we lost three in a row and the sun ain’t come out yet, those are the tougher days, but it’s all about sticking to that.”