After Jayson Tatum's historic month, there's still room to grow

After Jayson Tatum's historic month, there's still room to grow

BOSTON — When Jayson Tatum’s exploits weren’t causing Paul Pierce to explode out of his baseline seat and swing his fists in excitement, Pierce often watched Tatum with a snarled lip, some of Tatum’s finishes around the rim causing Pierce’s exaggerated reactions.

Pierce, who had already boldly declared on a special edition of ESPN’s The Jump that Tatum was going to be better than him, seemed mesmerized by some of what Tatum was doing on the latest stage.

Tatum capped one of the best months in Celtics history with his fourth straight 30+ point night during Houston’s 111-110 overtime triumph. Tatum put up 32 points but struggled with his efficiency, connecting on just 9 of 27 shots and missing eight of the 12 triples he hoisted. Tatum added 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks, but also had 5 turnovers.

All of which is to say it wasn’t his finest performance but it definitely had its moments. The Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month award likely awaits Tatum for his February exploits that muscled him into an elite group of Celtics scorers.

Tatum is only the fifth player in team history to finish a calendar month averaging better than 30 points over a minimum of 10 games. He joins only Isaiah Thomas, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, and John Havlicek — or four of the best pure scorers the team has employed.

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Still, Tatum will undoubtedly be left lamenting the shots he didn’t make Saturday night, most notably a driving layup with under a minute to play in overtime that he airmailed (and that Daniel Theis couldn’t quite clean up) with Boston up 1. Tatum was a spectator on the final possession as Jaylen Brown’s 15-foot pull-up found front rim.

The Celtics might not have had a chance to win without Tatum. He breathed life back into TD Garden early in the fourth quarter and a driving finger roll that knotted the game at 87 had Pierce excitedly pumping his fist with 2008 teammate Kendrick Perkins seated next to him.

Tatum finished February averaging 30.7 points over 37.2 minutes per game in 12 appearances. He shot 49.4 percent overall and 48.1 percent beyond the arc, all while adding 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.2 steals over 37.2 minutes per game.

His minutes total got driven higher by two overtime games, including a thrilling double-OT win over the Clippers before the All-Star break. In the five games since the All-Star game, all without Kemba Walker, Tatum averaged 34 points while shooting 50.9 percent overall and 50 percent beyond the arc over 37.9 minutes per game.

Tatum’s per-36 numbers for February shuffle him ahead of some of Bird’s finest months (all but March 1986). Only Pierce’s February 2006, and nearly the entirety of Thomas’ absurd 2016-17 campaign, were better in terms of pure scoring output.

Celtics players spent the month as mesmerized by Tatum as Pierce was. Enes Kanter said teammates openly wondered on the bench what had gotten into Tatum during this absurd run, particularly the way his confidence exploded as his game blossomed on some big stages. The consensus seems to be that Tatum earning an All-Star nod paved a path to playing like a true star without the pressure of that goal weighing on him.

The Rockets game is a nice reminder that there’s still plenty of room for growth for Tatum, something that coach Brad Stevens highlighted before Saturday’s showdown.

"He’s got a lot of room to improve, which is good,” said Stevens. "We saw that on the west coast in the Lakers game. He saw a bunch of doubles and we watched those all as a team. And then, in the Utah game, I thought he was way better against them, and that’s just because he sees some of that stuff for the first time.

"That’s the thing about the special players in the league — and [James] Harden’s a good example of this, he’s seen everything. But he’s seen it for years and years and years now. And even the doubles that maybe haven’t come as frequently as they do now, he’s seen them at times over the last couple of years. Tatum’s greatest strength to me is his emotional ability to be great at any moment and his ability to quickly learn something.

"I always remember one of his first exhibition games, Charlotte ran a play that a lot of NBA teams run, and we had not gone through it in any way. He got burned on the first one. And on the second one he figured it out. And that’s why I think he has a chance to be really special. But he’d be the first to tell you he’s not finished and he can still get a lot better. Because he’s going to see all this new stuff.”

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni dubbed Tatum “another superstar,” and wondered about his team’s ability to contain him. The Rockers did about as good of a job as they could have hoped for and, if not for a flukey sequence off Tatum’s intentionally missed free throw at the end of regulation, might not have needed an extra session to sweep the season series from Boston.

The atmosphere and the energy of Saturday’s game will help Tatum as he moves forward. There are no silver linings for the Celtics in these sort of losses — especially not ones in which they were up 17 before letting Houston back in, and ones that could have been put away in the extra session.

Tatum still has room to improve. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll have as good of a month, statistically, any time soon, especially when a healthy Walker returns. But he can continue his ascent to NBA superstardom by more consistently impacting both ends of the court in a positive way, including saving his best work for crunch-time moments.

That’s when superstars like Pierce used to really assert themselves among the league’s elite. Tatum must learn to do the same.

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Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, sporting some sort of cyborg, choke-sign Reggie Miller T-shirt that Indiana native Brad Stevens would certainly approve of, plopped down in a chair for his postgame Zoom conference Tuesday night and was asked to assess Boston’s postseason preparedness.

"I think we’re ready,” Tatum declared, hammering home what Boston’s play over the past four games had already confirmed.

The Celtics can comfortably put their core players in, ahem, bubble wrap for Thursday’s seeding-game finale against the Washington Wizards. Everything has fallen into place for Boston over the past week, not the least of which is August Tatum playing like February Tatum while scoring a game-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting over 29 minutes as the Celtics handed a desperate Grizzlies team a 122-107 loss on Tuesday night.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The Celtics, sluggish and rust-filled early in the bubble experience, have clicked on most cylinders the past seven days. The ball has zipped around the court, the team displaying increased ball movement and highlight-quality passing that has keyed Boston’s offensive surge, which includes owning the second best offensive rating in the bubble (120.3, trailing only playoff-pushing Portland).

When one of Boston’s usual offensive weapons has had a rough night, others have stepped forward. Case in point: As Jaylen Brown labored through a 3-for-13 shooting performance Tuesday, Gordon Hayward — his bubble alter ego Stache Gordon slowly emerging — shook off his own 3-point woes to put up 19 points behind four triples. Tatum hit some absurdly tough shots (negating his five turnovers) and Kemba Walker showed more signs of being back to the All-Star form from the start of the season.

Walker put a Grizzlies defender on skates with a ruthless jab-step pull-up late in the fourth quarter. Later he noted, "Today is probably the best I’ve felt out there. I was really comfortable making my moves and stuff like that.” The next time Walker plays, the minute restriction that caused some of Boston’s early bubble turbulence will be a thing of the past. And it’s no coincidence that, as that restriction loosened, Boston started to find its groove.

Boston’s net rating inside the bubble is now plus-10.3, second only to the undefeated Phoenix Suns. The next closest Eastern Conference team is Toronto at plus-3.7.

“We’ve definitely come a long way, and we’re gelling really well,” said Walker. "Having fun, competing at a very high level.”

Not only has Boston’s core players looked ready to go but the team has found a little something in its complementary pieces as well. Second-year big man Robert Williams, who did little to kick down the playing-time door during scrimmage work, has been a revelation the past four games. He went from not getting off the bench in Boston’s early seeding games to putting together four straight eyebrow-raising efforts. In that span, Williams has averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 14.8 minutes per game. He’s made 19 of his 23 shot attempts (82.6 percent) with many of his finishes coming north of the rim.

Stevens' bench, once perilously thin, looks like it can confidently lean on at least four options in the postseason. Smart and Brad Wanamaker will handle backup guard minutes while Williams and Enes Kanter should split center reps based on matchups. Stevens can mix in the occasional doses of Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams or Romeo Langford on nights he must go deeper.

The Celtics have proven they can hang with the best of the Eastern Conference, putting a scare into Milwaukee despite spotting them a big early lead early in scrimmage play, and taking down Toronto at the height of their bubble buzz.

A matchup with injury-battered Philadelphia seems inevitable to open the playoffs. The Sixers still have plenty of talent, including old friend Al Horford, but the absence of Ben Simmons, and some uncertainty about the health of Joel Embiid, makes Philadelphia a far more agreeable foe than maybe it seemed even a week ago.

Boston’s improved level of play has helped boost the team’s confidence as well, regardless of first-round opponent.

“Obviously, we continue to get better, and I think we have from Game 1 playing down here to now,” said Tatum. "I think we just continue to get better each and every game, and that’s what you want this time of year, to continue to get better at the right time of the season.”

Barring the bizarre during Thursday’s matinee finale, the Celtics will head into the postseason playing some inspired ball and operating with a contender’s confidence.

The last four games haven’t been perfect but the Celtics have shown their potential during them. With Stevens’ ability to hone in on an opponent and an added level of focus required by the postseason, Boston has a chance to take its play even a level higher.

The last four games have shown that the Celtics are ready for what’s next.

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

With the No. 3 spot locked up and no chance of moving up or down, there was not a ton of incentive for the Boston Celtics in their next-to-last seeding game, against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But you would have thought it was the Celtics -- not the Grizzlies -- who were playing for their postseason lives.

This Celtics team has shown itself to be more than just one of the best teams talent-wise we’ve seen since Brad Stevens took over in 2013.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Watching the way this group has grown throughout the season and even more so during the league’s restart in Orlando, Fla., the Celtics have shown a level of focus on the task at hand – winning games – that has allowed them to not just survive in the Bubble but thrive against any and all the competition.

The latest to fall by the wayside against the Celtics was the Grizzlies, who were no match for Boston as the Celtics pulled away for a comfortable 122-107 win.

It was a performance that like so many we’ve seen of late from Boston, consisted of players stepping up to contribute in a multitude of ways.

And the Grizzlies, one of the feel-good stories of the season, were unable to make it much of a game.

Jayson Tatum: Memphis became the latest team that simply had no answer on how to contain Tatum. He led all scorers with 29 points in addition to grabbing six rebounds.

Ja Morant: For most of this season, Morant has been the best first-year player in the NBA. You can chalk up Tuesday’s game as yet another strong performance by Morant who led the Grizzlies with a double-double of 26 points and 13 assists.

Kemba Walker: After a rough game against Orlando, Walker bounced back with an efficient game with 19 points coming on 7-for-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists. 

Marcus Smart: He put up a near double-double of 11 points and nine assists, but Smart’s impact was so much greater. His floor leadership, attention to detail, defense, intensity ... Smart brought it all to the floor and the Celtics were so much better off for it.

Jonas Valenciunas: If there’s one area of concern for the Celtics going forward, it has been the ability of opposing big men to put up big games with most of their work getting done around the rim. Valenciunas had a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Robert Williams III: The days of being in and out of the lineup because of ineffective play or injuries appear to be behind Williams. He didn’t play a ton of minutes but Williams once again made his mark, finishing with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in just 14 minutes of court time.

Brandon Clarke: The play of Clarke is one of the many reasons why the Grizzlies feel their best days are ahead of them. Clarke had 15 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with six rebounds and a blocked shot.

Daniel Theis
: One of the not-so-bright spots for Boston was the play of Theis who had two points on 1-for-3 shooting along with struggles defensively.