Celtics

How Jayson Tatum unlocked his offense with a key Game 4 adjustment

Celtics
Jayson Tatum

BOSTON -- Here's a stat that may surprise you: Jayson Tatum went just 1 of 7 from 3-point range in both Saturday's Game 3 and Monday's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The former effort resulted in Tatum's worst game of the postseason: 10 points with six turnovers in a 109-103 loss to the Miami Heat. The latter resulted in his best game of the East Finals to date: a team-high 31 points that led Boston to a 102-82 rout at TD Garden.

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An explanation is needed here, and there's a simple one: Tatum got to the rack in Game 4.

The 24-year-old scored 24 of his 31 points either in the paint or at the free throw line Monday night. He finished 5 of 6 in the paint and 14 of 16 from the line. Those 16 free throw attempts were Tatum's highest total this postseason and his most in a game since March 6.

"Just being aggressive," head coach Ime Udoka said of Tatum's 16 free throw attempts. "They were really crowding our guys on the perimeter, and sometimes you're just going to have to break the play and be aggressive and get downhill. He did that from the start."

 

Tatum got going early with a pair of easy buckets in transition, racking up 12 points in the first quarter despite missing both of his 3-point attempts.

That fast start put Tatum in attack mode for the rest of the game. When Miami went small in search of an offensive spark, Tatum took advantage by driving to get a layup or a foul.

"They went to smaller lineups where they don't have a lot of rim protection there, so we were really trying to get to the paint and attack," Udoka said. "Obviously getting 14 or 16 free throws for him is huge, but continuing to make the right play ... If (Heat center Bam) Adebayo is not in the game, there's not a lot of rim protection, but (Tatum) still has to make plays for others, and he did that tonight."

The difference was obvious. As Tatum's shot charts from Game 3 (left) and Game 4 (right) in the tweet below illustrate, he attempted five shots in the restricted area Monday night compared to just two Saturday night. He also quadrupled his free throw attempts after taking just four in Game 4.

"He was able to get into gaps, get angles and draw fouls. That was the toughest part," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Tatum after the game. "He was able to get into a good rhythm just by seeing the ball go in from the free throw line quite a bit.

"It wasn't like the explosions that he's had after some of the losses previously in the playoffs. It was more about living at the free throw line and being able to get us out of position."

To Spoelstra's point, this was a very workmanlike 31 from Tatum. He didn't hit ridiculous fallaway jumpers or contested 3-pointers, instead going Jimmy Butler on the Heat by making his living at the free throw line.

It's not the most exciting brand of basketball, but it's a great development for the Celtics. Tatum has shot just 31 percent (9 for 29) from three this series against an aggressive Miami defense that has hounded him on the perimeter. But unlike the Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat don't have strong interior defense outside Adebayo, leaving the paint vulnerable if Tatum can get by their perimeter defense.

That's exactly what happened Monday night: Tatum found a way to dominate the game despite struggling with his outside shot, pulling out a new trick to help swing the momentum back in Boston's favor.