BOSTON – Jayson Tatum came shooting out of a cannon the way he so often has in his first two years with the Celtics.
A driving dunk got him in the scoring column early Monday night at TD Garden. Then he found Al Horford on a sweet alley-oop. A rhythm 3-pointer and a mid-range jumper had him at eight points in six minutes. A 24-foot splash with 3:32 left in the first quarter put Tatum at 11 points, and the Celtics up 28-8.
Tatum was feeling it. The question was – as it has oddly been with the former No. 3 overall pick for long stretches of his second season in the NBA – whether that feeling could be sustained. The answer, as Monday night progressed and the track meet of the first quarter turned into a slog as the Miami Heat chipped, chipped, chipped into that 22-point lead until it was almost gone, was once again puzzling.
Tatum played the entire first quarter, then only 2:52 of the second, missing both his shots. He then played the first 6:39 of the third, missing the only two shots he took there. A night that had started so promisingly for a player the Celtics will have to count on so dearly during the playoffs had turned into a 4-for-11 performance that was suddenly more shoulder-shrugging than eye-popping.
“Each game is different,” said Tatum of the unevenness after the 110-105 victory. “My rotation is not always the same. Sometimes I come out a lot quicker than I think. Or play longer.
“But I’m the player, so my job is to go out there and play.”
Tatum is in a far different spot than he was at this point of his rookie season. By this time last year, he had long cooled off from the historic 3-point shooting pace of early in his first season, and much talk of the “rookie wall” fell on the deaf ears of those who felt the Celtics weren’t going anywhere in the playoffs without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving anyway.
Fans were pretty much content for one year that Tatum was the symbol of another Danny Ainge heist of a trade – at the expense of the process-minded Philadelphia 76ers, no less – and when Tatum reemerged in the playoffs it was like a whole new layer of rich gravy on the satisfaction sandwich.
Yet, much like the rest of this Celtics team, that run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals only served to raise expectations of what’s next. The dunk on LeBron James, the summer working out with Kobe Bryant, the commercials for Dragon movies and doughnut shops, all elevated Tatum’s profile, yet made him a target for scrutiny for the first time in his pro career.
And the microscope of late has revealed more blemishes that previously noticed by the naked, adoring eyes. While Tatum’s numbers are comparable to his rookie year – he is scoring more, rebounding better, yet shooting worse, and has the exact same player-efficiency rating in almost identical minutes per night – his tendency to drift in and out of effectiveness on a given night raises concern whether he can be a go-to player to count on during whatever switch-flipping scenario plays out in the postseason.
“It’s a long season,” Tatum reasoned Monday night. “There are going to be ups and downs. Playoffs is what it’s all about. So looking forward to that.”
In the playoffs, rotations tend to be shortened, and hot hands ridden. Last year, that meant even more opportunity for Tatum to showcase his coming-out party on a national stage. This year, however, there is fierce competition for those minutes in the fourth quarter, with Celtics coach Brad Stevens already going away from Tatum in favor of Jaylen Brown for defensive purposes in crunch time of Monday’s postseason preview against the Indiana Pacers.
“Yeah, but you’ve just got to adjust,” Tatum said. “It’s just part of the game. It’s part of growing, and developing as a player.”
The good news on this night is that Tatum walked that walk after his rhythm had appeared to come to a standstill in the middle two quarters. He started the fourth quarter and gave Stevens cause to go the distance with him. He drilled his third 3-pointer of the night 78 seconds into the fourth, knocked down his fourth from 25 feet midway through the quarter when the Heat first got as close as three, and made it a three-possession game with 2:54 on the clock.
What could have been another middling performance turned into a 19-point, six-rebound, five-assist night in which Tatum’s plus-15 was second on the team, only to Irving. That was the type of bookend contribution the Celtics will need from Tatum in the playoffs.
The rallying cry around Tatum last year started as “And he’s only 19,” then turned to “And he’s only 20.” Now, at legal drinking age, thoughts have turned from all Tatum can do considering his youth, to all he should be doing as one of the supposed marquee players of his generation.
It’s still a lot to ask out of a relatively young player. But the answers won’t be found in crying to the officials for non-calls, defensive lapses connected to errant shots, or blaming minute stretches that are not identical from game to game.
These are answers Tatum will need to draw out of himself in order to re-fuel his ascent into future-star status in the league.
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