Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum struggled with his shot in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
In a previous season against a top-flight team, this may have had an impact on Tatum’s performance in other areas, offensively and defensively, and the Celtics may lose the game.
That is no longer the case. Tatum’s growth as a playmaker and passer was evident in the series’ opener, when he shot just 3:17 from the field and failed to score in the fourth quarter, but had a playoff career-high with 13 assists in the 120-108 win over Boston at the Golden State.
“All year before that, we kind of nurtured Jayson and prepared him for those moments where teams are going to attack you so much they’re going to try and take you out of the game,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “You have to be able to make plays and influence the game in different ways.”
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Tatum was named to the first-team All-NBA for the first time this season, and a big part of his improvement has been the added responsibilities Boston coach Ime Udoka gave him.
This included building up the game and staying on the defensive.
“We’ve talked about it all year and I’ve talked to him extensively about how he can influence the game when he’s not having his best offensive night,” said Udoka. “I love his growth and progression in those areas where he’s still on guard defensively, still involving others, not sulking about his shots and trying to play through some mistakes and physicality that they played with him.”
Tatum averaged 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season, and while his assists dwarfed last season’s 4.3 per game, it’s clear that Tatum is a better passer — rather ready to trust the pass and his teammates.
Udoka wanted to see that from Tatum and Jaylen Brown when he took over as Celtics coach last year. Giving them additional playmaking duties was part of Udoka’s plan to make the Celtics better offensively. There are some stumbling blocks, such as too many turnovers, but positives outweigh negatives.
“That was his message from day one to challenge me to be the best player I can be and improve other areas of my game,” Tatum said. “We’ve seen a lot of film over the game season, just areas, things that I could improve on. Obviously playmaking was one. Attract a lot of attention. Just help the team as much as possible great job of challenging myself, just the group, in that aspect.”
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In the playoffs, Tatum has increased his assists to 6.1 per game. Because he’s such a gifted scorer and goal scorer, he draws the attention of the defense. The Warriors prefer Tatum not to have the basketball. They don’t want him to have 30 point games. But of his 13 assists in Game 1, nine came from teammates hitting 3-pointers.
“Just read the play,” Tatum said. “They are doing a great job of helping out and things like that. So, you know, it’s obviously just as easy as pulling two and finding someone who’s open. I just tried that.”
Tatum entered the league as a goalscorer but continued to hone his game. It won’t surprise anyone if he’s one of the rare players to average at least 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists next season — and is an MVP candidate, as former Washington coach Scott Brooks predicted a year ago .
His high school coach Frank Bennett at Chaminade in St. Louis never questioned Tatum’s playmaking skills.
“Jayson has always done things at an exceptional level,” Bennett said, “but he wants to win. If that means he has to moderate on a night like Game 1, he’ll do whatever it takes. He’s a smart player. Even back to our days, there were times – as a senior he averaged almost 30 points – he spent the first quarters trying to support and involve some of the other guys. He’s got that in him. He’ll do anything to to help his team win.”
Bennett said that as Tatum has developed into a top scorer and the defense is trying to stop him, “it forced him to figure out how to adjust his game. Luckily he plays with other players who are offensively effective so sometimes he breaks down the defense and pulls two, three defenders and finds the open man.
And Celtics veteran Al Horford saw it when they were teammates in Tatum’s rookie season.
“It’s such a challenge for people like him, you know, top players in the league who are expected to score, play, defend, all those things,” Horford said. “And Jayson does all those things.
“His play structure has steadily improved. … It just shows his growth. Even since the beginning of the year he just kept getting better. He’s the guy who will find out. One way or another, He’ll find out. We put a lot on him and he delivers. That’s what he does.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA Finals: Jayson Tatum’s growth for the Celtics in all its glory