Celtics Insider

Forsberg: Shooting slump forces Tatum to embrace necessary next step

Celtics Insider

Jayson Tatum’s shot defying him on Sunday night in Toronto might have been the best thing that could have happened to the Boston Celtics.

With Tatum cold from the floor for a third straight game, Boston’s All-Star forward was forced to embrace a playmaker role and turned the attention he drew into a season-high 10 assists.

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It was the third-highest assist game of Tatum’s career falling behind only a 12-assist game against Detroit last January and an 11-assist night against the Heat inside the bubble in 2020.

Rarely will we celebrate nights in which a player misses 14 shots and commits four turnovers. But Tatum was fantastic, especially in the final frame, when he embraced the attention he received and totaled half his assists.

Tatum missed six of the seven shots he took in the frame but his five assists led to 12 points as Boston stiff-armed an opponent’s charges for a rare change this season.

Tatum set the tone from the start of the final frame. With Boston clinging to a four-point lead, Tatum caught Toronto’s defense starting to load up and got Marcus Smart a free drive to the basket. A short time later, when five black jerseys clogged Tatum’s path to the paint, he made the easy pass for a Smart 3-pointer.

When Tatum operated out of the pick-and-roll with Enes Kanter, it trapped defenders like flies in honey and led to even more open looks for Smart.

Tatum can throw the highlight-caliber kickout pass on drives but Sunday night proved that simply moving the ball when teams load up is good enough. Tatum doesn’t need to get frustrated on these poor shooting nights — which have been more common than he’d probably like to this point — and can still dominate the game with getting good looks for others.

 

When his teammates knock down those shots, the Celtics don't look like the worst fourth-quarter offense in the NBA.

“It was obviously not his best shooting night but he was playing the right way the whole night,” said Celtics first-year coach Ime Udoka. "We know he's going to draw a ton of attention from them and he just continues to trust his guys and make the right play and that lead to assists. Twenty-four assists on 34 baskets is a credit to him. Almost had half of ours and he's just gotta, at times, be the guy that's gonna bait guys out there. 

"Be the decoy to some extent and draw that crowd and you see everybody else pretty much ate off of him tonight. So credit to him for playing the right way, not getting frustrated and then sticking with it.”

Tatum’s season assist percentage is slowly creeping up. Six of his last eight games have seen him assist on at least 21.4 percent of his team’s makes. His assist percentage, after spiking to a career-best 19.6 last year, dipped hard early this season (part of that is due to Boston’s lack of shooters). It had crawled to 16.8 percent before Sunday’s game, which still ranked him in the 86th percentile among all forwards.

But there’s a chance for Tatum to really throttle that number up. And Boston’s success might depend on it. While he’s struggling to find consistency with his shot again — a four-game hot streak faded awfully fast — he might as well embrace one of the necessary steps for him to emerge as a legitimate top player in the league.

Superstars have to be able to impact the game on nights when shots aren’t falling. Tatum can still dominate a game with his passing, rebounding, and defense. All if he doesn’t allow himself to get bogged down by his shooting woes.

Sunday night showed how he can take over a game without just being a scorer.