It seems unfair to put the spotlight on a single player given the total team effort it took for the Boston Celtics to rally back from a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit to take down the Charlotte Hornets in overtime Monday night.
Newcomer Dennis Schroder hit some big shots; veteran Marcus Smart ensured overtime with his typical defensive tenacity; Robert Williams had a monster performance; Jabari Parker gave the Al Horford-less Celtics a much-needed spark when Charlotte threatened to run away early; and Jaylen Brown, questionable to even play, had both the go-ahead 3-pointer in OT and an absurd poster dunk to put the exclamation point on Boston’s feel-good win over an undefeated opponent.
But Jayson Tatum gets the ink tonight. And not because of the 41 points. (Big scoring nights are old hat at this point). It was the eight assists, including two key feeds on late-game dunks, that distinguished Tatum’s outing.
This was only the eighth time that Tatum has totaled eight assists or more in a regular-season game during his career, and seven of those nights have come in calendar year 2021. As Tatum looks to take the next step towards the upper echelon of NBA players, his ability to make others around him better is vital to that ascension.
Tatum logged a team-high 41 minutes and 28 seconds of floor time on Monday night. Leaving his early season shooting woes in the rearview, he connected on 14-of-28 shots, including six of the 12 3-pointers he hoisted. He carried Boston’s offense at times, especially when the Celtics were simply trying to keep pace with the Hornets.
But Tatum also set a playmaking tone from the jump. Boston’s first basket of the game saw Tatum draw four defenders and whip a cross-court pass to Dennis Schroder for a 3-pointer. When Hornet defenders overreacted to his drives later in the quarter, he found both Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams for triples to help Boston rally out of an early hole.
While five of his first six assists led to 3-pointers, Tatum did his part to produce a couple of loud Boston dunks late in the game. With the Celtics down a point with under two minutes to play in regulation, Tatum delivered a lob that led to a powerful Rob Williams dunk.
Then, in the extra session, with Boston clinging to a one-possession lead, Tatum fed Brown on a 2-on-1 break for a poster dunk over Miles Bridges that helped seal the win. Tatum might have screamed louder than Brown in celebration of the dunk.
"I try to pride myself on being able to do everything on the court,” said Tatum. "I know I'm not perfect but I try to do it all. And knowing I draw a lot of attention, finding guys in their spots, getting them easy, open looks. It just opens the game up when everybody else is scoring as well.”
Tatum’s usage rate through three games had been the same lofty 30.8 percent that he posted last season, per Basketball Reference. But his assist rate had ticked down from 20.3 to 17 percent. It’ll spike back up to last year’s levels but it needs to be on a steady climb this season if these Celtics are going to be in the mix in a beefed-up Eastern Conference.
It’s a friendly reminder that good things happen when the Celtics put the ball in Tatum’s hands. Tatum had averaged only 70 touches per game through those first three outings, despite playing a double-overtime tilt against the Knicks and being without Brown against the Rockets.
After the Celtics moved on from Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier this offseason, it felt like touches for Tatum and Brown were set to explode -- maybe even to a Luka- or LeBron-like level for Tatum (both those guys averaged high-80s for touches last year, and both are in the 90s early this season).
Tatum ranked 24th in touches entering the Charlotte game but showed how important it is that the offense go through him, even if he’s just using the attention to create for others.
On a night where everyone chipped in, Tatum stood out because of how he got everyone else involved at one point or another. That’s what the best players do.
And Tatum’s challenge is finding a way to continue to evolve as a playmaker while still putting up those loud point totals.