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Will Winter Jayson Tatum reemerge inside the NBA’s summer bubble?
Beyond Kemba Walker’s health, it might be the biggest question facing the Boston Celtics as they prepare for their first game of the restart on Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.
What exactly is Winter Tatum, you ask? It’s the colloquialism we’re rolling with to describe the Tatum we saw right before the 2019-20 season paused (we’ll also accept “February Tatum” as a more direct reference; Late-Winter Tatum would be even more accurate).
If Tatum was a Pokemon, Winter Tatum would be his evolved form, a souped-up version of a player that was already among the league’s best. The scary part for the NBA: It might not be his final form.
The Celtics need something close to Winter Tatum if they truly desire to compete for a title inside the bubble. For all the talent that Boston possesses — with essentially four All-Star players in its starting lineup — every championship-caliber team has one player it can lean heaviest on when the games matter most.
Tatum has to be that player for Boston.
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But before we look ahead, we should look back. This is a reintroduction series, after all. So let’s do a monthly Tatum recap.
October Tatum: Some rough shooting out of the gates was masked by all the attention on Kemba Walker’s early days in green. Tatum, however, capped the short month by aiding a feverish rally against the Milwaukee Bucks in a game that culminated with him high-fiving a courtside Paul Pierce, much to the delight of the Garden faithful.
November Tatum: The first full month of the season opened with Tatum hitting a deep fadeaway game-winner against the Knicks and pinnacled with a brilliant 30-point night on the road against the Clippers in which Tatum dropped childhood idol Paul George with a late-game stepback. Ultimately, it was just an appetizer of what would soon come.
December Tatum: All-Star buzz started to build as Tatum regularly reached the 30-point mark, including a 39-point night against Charlotte that left Walker marveling at what Tatum was accomplishing at such a young age.
January Tatum: A bit of up-and-down Tatum as pressure to make a final All-Star push weighed on him. Tatum, who admitted he stressed a bit too much about individual performances, helped his chances though with a 41-point night against New Orleans. Then he celebrated the All-Star nod with a 27-point outing in a win over the Lakers.
February Tatum: How appropriate that 2020 was a “leap" year because that’s exactly what Tatum completed here. Enough so that LeBron James dubbed him an “absolute problem” after Tatum’s 41-point outburst inside Staples Center against the Lakers. Tatum earned the NBA’s Player of the Month award while averaging 30.7 points over 37.2 minutes per game in a 12-game month.
March Tatum: Tatum produced two more 30-point outings, including one in Indiana the night before the NBA season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. Celtics fans lamented the timing of the stoppage given the obvious momentum that Tatum was playing with before the break.
And, well, that’s where we've been stuck for the past four-plus months. Some Celtics fans spent the early portion of quarantine fretting about how Tatum didn’t own a hoop at his Boston-area home, then only finally exhaled months later when the Celtics sent along video of Tatum splashing a whole bunch of long-distance shots when players were first allowed back into the facility in June. Some are still waiting to see it in game action before they’re convinced.
So what will July and August and September Tatum look like? It’s probably asking a bit much for Tatum to pick up right where he left off. And, yet, with Walker starting the seeding games on a minutes restriction, it will put some added pressure on Tatum to shoulder the offensive load.
Tatum had flashes of his late-winter self during the team’s second scrimmage against the Suns. It was a reminder of his ability to dominate the game, on both ends of the floor no less, and the Celtics will need Tatum to operate with that sort of confidence and the killer instinct that was far more obvious during his winter surge.
Winter Tatum positioned himself among the NBA elite. He might have secured himself an All-NBA berth with his play during that span. The question is what happens from here? Tatum has set a lofty benchmark for himself with his winter play. Will he melt in the Florida heat? Or will that winter-cold water keep running through his veins?