The point total will get all the attention and deservedly so. But it’s how Jayson Tatum produced his career-best 53 points on Friday night that should be the story, especially if he can bottle up the aggression and force he displayed against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Tatum, at 23 years, 37 days, became the youngest players in Celtics history to top 50 points during Friday’s come-from-behind win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. His 53 points were the third highest regular-season output behind only Larry Bird (60) and Kevin McHale (58).
Tatum was uber-efficient, generating his big night on just 25 field goal attempts. He got to the free-throw line 16 times, something only three other players have done in the Brad Stevens era (Jaylen Brown, Isaiah Thomas, Jeff Green).
Here’s four things we liked about Tatum’s 53-piece wing dinner beyond the loud point total:
PLAYING WITH FORCE
Maybe the biggest lingering complaint about Tatum’s game has been his inability to maximize his frame. Too often he seems to settle for jumpers, especially those of the fadeaway variety, instead of utilizing his length while attacking the basket.
Against the Timberwolves, Tatum routinely charged at the hoop and was rewarded by drawing six shooting fouls. Our favorite might have been this late third-quarter burst …
The Celtics were making their run after trailing by as much as 17 and Tatum was heating up (he scored 35 of his 53 in the second half and overtime). When Tatum spotted Naz Reid on his heels coming off this screen from Robert Williams, he motored at the hoop looking for blood. Tatum hit the ground hard with Reid clubbing him while trying to recover but that’s how you earn a whistle.
For the season, Tatum is drawing shooting fouls on just 8.2 percent of his shot attempts. That’s the lowest mark of his career and ranks in the 57th percentile among all forwards, per Cleaning the Glass data. That number, which was up as high as 12.7 percent in his rookie season, needs to climb — just like his free-throw attempts.
Tatum can often be seen complaining to refs when he doesn’t get whistles. But when he plays with this sort of force, those calls come early and often.
SHARING IS CARING
When a player is having a career night, there’s often an urge to put the ball in his hands and get everyone else out of the way. The Celtics did this on the final shot of regulation and were content with Tatum taking a tough elbow fadeaway (very Pierce-like at the elbow). But, in overtime, Tatum didn’t force shots and instead used the attention he was drawing to create for others.
Just look at this mid-overtime possession …
The Celtics were clinging to a one-possession lead when Tatum came off a side pick-and-roll to find five neon green jerseys staring at him. Probing his way back towards the lane, Tatum spotted the crowd, including D’Angelo Russell cheating over off Kemba Walker, and made a simple dish. Walker was able to step into a rhythm 3-pointer that helped Boston create some separation.
HELPING ON THE GLASS
Tatum became only the third Celtics player to produce a game with 50+ points and 10+ rebounds, joining Bird (twice) and McHale in that exclusive club. He’s not an elite rebounder but his size gives him plenty of opportunities on the glass. The league’s tracking data credited him with 14 defensive rebound chances and he snagged nine of them.
If Boston is going to play small and the bigs are often left jousting underneath, then Tatum has to clean up whenever possible. He rebounds 17.9 percent of all opponent’s missed shots, which is a career best and ranks in the 91st percentile among all forwards this season, per Cleaning the Glass.
He simply has to remember to push the ball hard off rebounds and not just walk it up (he’s nearly committed a couple of 8-second violations in recent games).
In typical Tatum fashion, his career night elicited left him mostly nonplussed. Yes, he admitted it “didn’t seem real” to be mingling with Bird’s records and he left the court clutching the game ball. But Tatum said he’d simply have to produce a repeat performance because his 2-year-old son wasn’t present for Friday’s game.
“[Deuce] wasn’t here but he called me after the game and said congrats,” said Tatum. "I’ll have to do it again some day and maybe he’ll be there the next time.”
Tatum has had a lot of success early in his pro career but needs to continue to find motivation in going further. It’s one thing to go for 53 points in an overtime game against the team with the worst record in the NBA. The next step is consistently producing big nights against the league’s elite.