On paper at least, the strategy employed by the Toronto Raptors on how to deal with Jayson Tatum’s upper-echelon scoring has worked.
Tatum has averaged just 12.5 points per game against the Raptors, his lowest scoring average against any team he has faced four times this season. To put that in perspective, it represents about half of the 22-year-old's usual per game (23.5) point total.
Defending him more than anyone else for Toronto has been Kyle Lowry, a feisty point guard who is the absolute heart and soul of the franchise.
While Tatum has had success shooting the ball when guarded by Lowry (he’s 7-for-11 this season when Lowry is the primary Toronto defender), it’s the lack of quantity and not the quality of shots that stands out.
So the Raptors have every right to feel good about how they are handling Tatum the scorer.
But here’s the problem for Toronto. As impressive as their defense has been in limiting Tatum getting buckets, he has been the difference-maker when these two have played with his defense.
Tatum has often talked about the importance of his defense being a key to Boston’s success. Against the Raptors, no truer words have been spoken. How good a defender has Tatum been against Toronto? Like Kawhi Leonard/Paul George/Marcus Smart good.
Start with his defensive rating.
For most players, having that number be around 100 is considered exceptional defense. But Tatum? His defensive rating has been below 100.0 in all but one of the four games this season against Toronto.
And that one game ended with a 113-97 Celtics loss on Dec. 28 with Tatum’s defensive rating a respectable 109.3.
But it’s clear that Tatum made some adjustments from that encounter. Because the next time he faced the Raptors, Tatum’s defense was on another level all game long.
By the time the carnage was tallied up and the final score was a 122-100 Celtics victory on August 7, Tatum walked off the court under the Orlando Bubble having finished with an insanely effective defensive rating of 67.7.
Of course, the Raptors should take some solace in the fact that they have done their part to keep Tatum from having big games offensively with him scoring no more than 18 points in any game against Toronto this season.
It’s not that big a stretch to believe that Tatum will struggle to score in this series, either.
But the Celtics aren’t about Tatum having big scoring nights or anything like that. Sure, they love when that happens.
But here's what they love even more than that: winning.
And that’s something Tatum has done plenty of this season against Toronto, doing so with his defense — not offense — which only adds to the challenges awaiting the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors in their quest to get past a Celtics team that’s playing some of the best basketball of any squad in the playoffs and seems poised to make their own championship run this year.