The Celtics All-Star was one assist shy of a triple-double.
In a physical game that included a dislocated shoulder, a sprained ankle, a twisted knee, and a Flagrant 1 on an arm pull, it was the artful playmaking of Jayson Tatum that made the difference in a potential playoff preview against the Heat on Sunday afternoon.
Tatum lead the Celtics in scoring with 26 and ten rebounds, but he might have been more impressive giving the ball up.
“It’s all about making the right read. They’re not really going to let you play one-on-one. They’re going to show you a crowd, send some doubles,” Tatum told ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth after posting an impressive nine assists with just one turnover in the Miami matinee. “It’s all about sometimes being a decoy and drawing the extra man and making the right pass.”
Per Hubbarth, Tatum’s teammates were 9-of-17 on passes from JT. That’s nearly twice as many potential assists that Tatum averages a night (8.6). His point-of-attack playmaking in addition to his point-of-attack defense have largely improved this season, putting him squarely in the MVP conversation.
The Heat seem to be playing a version of a 1-2-2 zone defense to lock up Tatum above the break. Whichever side he decides to attack, he’ll draw the additional defender on the wing. Here, it’s a simple read to pass the ball to Jrue Holiday, the best corner pocket shooter from behind the arc.
Over the last seven games, Tatum has dished out 8, 7, 3, 7, 7, 8, and 9 assists. They haven’t all been spectacular, just the “right play.” On this high pick from Al Horford, Tatum draws three defenders: Caleb Martin, Jaime Jaquez Jr, and Kevin Love in the drop. JT makes the simple pass to Sam Hauser for the open 3.
This will get registered as a secondary assist for Tatum. Against smaller defenders like Tyler Herro, all he needs to do is get this shoulders around his opponent and find the kickout. The ball pings from Tatum to Pritchard to Holiday for another open triple.
Joe Mazzulla spammed this play several possessions down the stretch, trying to get Tatum on Duncan Robinson. Through three games against the Heat, the Celtics are 11-of-21 with Robinson as the primary defender. Like against Herro, he knows he can beat him in the post. Instead, he patiently waits for the double team — it’s Caleb Martin in this instance — and then calmly scans for the open player. Bam Adebayo is guarding both Horford and Brown, but Brown smartly cuts back door for the easy reverse.
Miami is replete with shooters and pesky defenders, but to their detriment, many of them are undersized against Tatum (and Brown). Those mismatches force the Heat to help and with JT’s improved playmaking, he can just as easily pick them apart with his passing rather than his shooting.