Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum takes the spotlight.
Context: Tatum was spectacular in Boston's Game 2 win over the Toronto Raptors.
In 42 minutes of play, Tatum scored a playoff career high 34 points on 8-for-17 shooting from the field and a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line. He also dished out a team-high six assists, marking another playoff career high.
Tatum has never been known as much of a facilitator, but he carved up the Raptors with his passing in the second half.
There was one particular pass of his that stood out. Let's take a closer look at it and why it's such a big deal.
The play: Tatum launches a crosscourt pass to Marcus Smart, who knocks down his third straight 3-pointer of the fourth quarter.
Breakdown: The Celtics run a high pick-and-roll with Tatum as the ball handler and Daniel Theis as the screener.
Tatum was one of the best pick-and-roll scorers in the league this season. According to NBA.com, he generated around a quarter (25.5 percent) of his offence on those plays and ranked in the 88th percentile with 1.02 points per possession, numbers similar to likes of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James and James Harden.
Being the efficient pick-and-roll scorer that he is, Tatum has the attention of all five Raptors defenders.
With Theis setting the screen several feet behind the 3-point line, Norman Powell goes underneath and attaches himself to Tatum's hip when he recovers. Chris Boucher buys Powell some time by sagging off of Theis to prevent Tatum from getting a straight-line drive to the basket.
Tatum takes one dribble inside the 3-point line, leading to this:
Notice how the Raptors have shut down both corners with Pascal Siakam guarding Jaylen Brown closely on the strongside and Serge Ibaka not venturing far off of Grant Williams on the weakside. That leaves Fred VanVleet having to shoot the gap between Theis at the top of the perimeter and Marcus Smart on the wing.
VanVleet has been one of the most disruptive off-ball defenders in the league this season. According to NBA.com, he led the league in deflections per game while ranking third in steals per game. His anticipation in these sorts of situations is on another level.
It's clear that VanVleet is focused entirely on Tatum, waiting for him to make a decision.
It's impossible to know what VanVleet was expecting, but based on his reaction, I'm guessing a crosscourt pass to Smart wasn't it because he does a 180 while Tatum's pass is in the air and is a step slow on the closeout.
Even with the pass being a little high, Smart has the time to get off a clean look over VanVleet.
Why it matters: At this point, we all know Tatum can score. He's coming off of a season in which he averaged 23.4 points per game, doing so on .450/.403/.812 shooting splits. Even at the age of 21, there are few players in the league who are better than him at putting the ball in the basket.
The next step for Tatum is to weaponize his scoring with his passing.
Tatum averaged a career-best 3.0 assists per game this season, but that number pales in comparison to other players in the league, especially at his position. According to NBA.com, he turned those assists into 7.9 points per game for his teammates, ranking him 30th among forwards. Many of the players ahead of him aren't exactly known for their passing, such as Tobias Harris (8.0), Pascal Siakam (9.3) and Andrew Wiggins (9.8).
Now, it can take a long time for wings to develop that part of their game. (Two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, for example, only recently got to a stage where his passing is a legitimate strength). But that's why Tatum dishing out six assists in an important Game 2 was such an encouraging sight for the Celtics.
It wasn't just the assist total that stood out either. Tatum was legitimately manipulating the second best defence in the league with his passing, this particular assist to Smart being the perfect example of his trickery.
To leave VanVleet literally running in a circle is not something that happens often, to say the least.
The reason it matters should be obvious: Tatum draws a ton of attention with the ball in his hands because he's capable of scoring every which way. (In addition to ranking in the 88th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency, Tatum ranked in the 76th percentile in isolation efficiency this season, the combination of which makes him a dynamic scorer in the halfcourt). If he can punish teams for loading up on him by consistently creating his percentage looks for his teammates, it will only make him and the Celtics harder to defend - the Celtics because they have the playmakers and shooters around him to capitalize on those opportunities, Tatum because it will help keep the defence honest.
Case in point? Tatum's 3-pointer later in the fourth quarter to put the Celtics ahead by six points with just under six minutes to play.
If Tatum didn't spend the first half of the fourth quarter picking the Raptors apart with his passing, I'm not sure Siakam bites as hard as he did on this look-off:
According to NBA.com, Tatum's six assists led to 17 points in Game 2, trailing only VanVleet (21) for the highest total in the game. Expecting that from Tatum every game moving forward would be unreasonable - that's Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry level of playmaking - but it should no longer come as a surprise when he does have those games.
That's a big step in Tatum's development into a superstar, as well as a terrifying development for any team looking to slow him down.
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