Before Boston and Philadelphia launched into their first-round playoff series, there was a case to be made that the underdog 76ers would have the best player on the floor.
It’s no longer a debate.
Jayson Tatum has asserted himself as by far the most dominant player in this series — and maybe even in the Eastern Conference based on early returns — and he’s the biggest reason the Celtics own a 2-0 series lead heading into Friday’s Game 3.
While Joel Embiid struggles to consistently dominate the game, his stamina fading after loud starts, Tatum has been a unwavering two-way force. Continuing a season-long trend, the Celtics play at a much higher level when Tatum is on the court and flounder when he’s not.
Consider this: Tatum’s net rating differential is a staggering plus-52 points per 100 possessions through two games. Sure, a small sample size contributes to the gaudiness of that number, but Boston’s net rating is plus-32.4 in the 72 minutes that Tatum has been on the floor and nosedives to minus-19.6 in the 24 minutes he’s been on the bench.
No other player on Boston's roster is in the negative for off-court net rating with Brad Wanamaker the closest teammate at plus-4.6.
For the sake of comparison, the Sixers have a net rating of minus-19.6 during Embiid’s 72 minutes of floor time, including an eyesore of a defensive rating at 130.4.
Here are a few more ways Tatum has dominated the early portion of this bubble series:
IMPACTING BOTH ENDS OF THE FLOOR
As good as Tatum has been offensively, with consecutive 30-plus-point outings, he’s been maybe even better defensively. In fact, Celtics coach Brad Stevens called Tatum’s defense “unbelievable” after Game 1 while noting, "he makes a huge impact on that end.”
Let’s try to quantify it: Tatum has spent nearly two-thirds of his defensive minutes on Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, and Tobias Harris. Those players have combined to score 6 points on 3-of-12 shooting over nearly 18 minutes of matchup time and roughly 63 total possessions, according to the NBA’s defensive tracking data.
Tatum hasn’t even jumped passing lanes as much as he typically does to create more transition opportunities, but he’s smothering his assignments, all while routinely being in good position to help. Tatum had three blocks in Game 1, including two on Richardson.
Overall, Sixers players have generated a total of 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting (27.8 percent) with Tatum as the primary defender in this series.
ADJUSTING TO PHILADELPHIA’S DEFENSE
Tatum scored a game-high 32 points in Game 1 but struggled when matched up with Matisse Thybulle. The NBA’s tracking data had the Philly rookie limiting Tatum to 4 points on 2-of-9 shooting that night, all while Tatum piled up 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting against all other defenders.
Already pondering a change, the Sixers moved Thybulle into the starting group for Game 2 but Tatum didn’t blink. He finished with 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting against Thybulle. In fairness, Tatum scored at least one field goal against SEVEN different defenders, so he was an equal opportunity bucket-giver in Game 2.
Tatum set the tone early, side-stepping his way into a 3-pointer over Thybulle on the very first possession of the game.
Tatum finished with eight triples overall, including one absurd Steph Curry-range 3-pointer on a broken sequence at the end of the first quarter. Tatum was actually upset he didn’t get a whistle while banking home that 31-footer from a step inside the logo.
Tatum is shooting a higher percentage beyond the arc than in front of it, connecting on 58.8 percent of his triples, all while launching 8.5 per game. While that side-step 3-pointer has become his signature move, he’s also showcased a new weapon inside the bubble: The floater.
Instead of trying to force shots over the Sixers’ size near the rim, especially when Embiid is patrolling the back line, Tatum is launching high-arcing rainbows at the rim. It’s staggering how many times they’ve barely scraped anything but twine upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
LIFTING UP THE BOSTON BENCH
When Gordon Hayward was lost to an ankle sprain at the end of Game 1, the big question was how Boston could both replace his production and do so without further depleting an already low-output bench.
In Game 2, Stevens leaned hard on a lineup featuring Tatum and four reserves (Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, and Grant Williams). In little more than five minutes of floor time together, that group outscored Philadelphia 16-5 while aiding Boston’s surge ahead.
Even as the only starter, Tatum’s presence led to open looks for Boston’s backups. Watch him come off this pick-and-roll late in the third quarter and draw a trio of defenders, leaving Langford open for a 3-point look.
Tatum’s ability to make good things happen, regardless of who is on the court, is just another indication of how dominant he’s becoming. Tatum will need to maintain that “best player” title if Boston is going to get past a team like defending champion Toronto, especially while Hayward is sidelined.
But the level that Tatum is playing at — both right before the break and ever since he stumbled out of the seeding-game gate against Milwaukee — makes you wonder just how many young players around the league you would choose to start a team before Tatum came off the board. In the East, the only player you might pick before him is Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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Before this series, Embiid probably would have been in that conversation for player to come off the board after Giannis. Through two games, picking between Tatum and Embiid has been a no-brainer.
Tatum is the best player in the series and it hasn’t been close.