Jayson Tatum was virtually unstoppable for portions of the Celtics’ Game 1 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. His game-high 32 points took the headlines as Boston jumped out to a 1-0 series lead, but the All-Star’s defense was just as good, if not better.
Tatum’s defensive rating of 103.8 was a game-best for players with double-digit minutes, discounting Brad Wanamaker 10 minutes of action. He held his matchups to just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting over 51.5 partial possessions, per the NBA’s tracking data. To top it all off, Tatum had a game-high three blocks. After the game, he noted the effort he’s put forth on that side of the ball.
“If I’m trying to be one of the best players in the league, defense has got to be just as important as scoring the ball,” Tatum said. “That’s kind of what we build our culture on here with the Celtics, taking pride in guarding your yard.”
When asked about Tatum’s performance, Brad Stevens praised his defensive effort, calling his play on that end “unbelievable.” So what was so unbelievable about it? Let’s begin with two of his blocks.
At 6-foot-8, Tatum has the size to guard up to bigger opponents, but he’s also fast enough to stay with quicker players like Philadelphia’s Josh Richardson. Here, Tatum makes a good read on the Joel Embiid pick, managing to get over the big man’s screen. Still, Embiid is able to disrupt Tatum’s perimeter pursuit enough so Richardson can get him on his back. For a lot of players, it’s difficult to gain any leverage from this point on, especially against a quick matchup. That isn’t the case for Tatum.
After getting behind Richardson, Tatum uses his length and athleticism to catch Richardson coming across the foul line as he moves toward the paint. Even as Richardson turns the corner, Tatum stays with him and comes from behind to alter the shot.
On this block, Tatum exhibits terrific help defense as Richardson comes down the lane. Matisse Thybulle moves along the perimeter, but Tatum makes a good read and elects to help, rather than sticking outside with the inconsistent shooter. At the beginning of the play, Tatum dug into Embiid in the post, creating the double team which forced him to kick the ball back out with just eight seconds remaining on the shot clock. That’s two great reads from Tatum in only six seconds.
Stevens has relentlessly preached the importance of ball-pressure for the Celtics, and Tatum answered the call in Game 1. The above highlight is just one example of Tatum acting as a perimeter disruptor. His high-level activity prevents Tobias Harris from getting comfortable, and once he picks up his dribble, Tatum applies intensified pressure. This forces Harris to give the ball up with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.
When the ball moves to Richardson, he looks to Embiid in the post, who has position on Daniel Theis. Tatum has already begun to dig, however, hedging toward Embiid which eliminates the easy entry pass. Richardson is forced to go back to Harris, who now has some space after Tatum dropped. Thanks to his length and quickness, Tatum is able to make up ground and still contest Harris’s 3-pointer. This combination of activity and smart reads makes it horribly difficult for opponents to get comfortable on the offensive end.
Here, Tatum is once again able to get over an Embiid screen and make up for lost ground on Richardson. Even after reading the screen a second late, he uses his length to contest the jumper. It’s a very minimal play in the grand scheme of the game, but this sort of thing adds up. Small, winning efforts like these go a long way.
This is another simple read that proves to be effective time and time again. Harris takes the messy dribble hand-off from Embiid and sees an opening in the paint. As he attacks the gap, Tatum and Jaylen Brown both make good reads and immediately collapse on the lane, forcing Harris into a euro-step floater (not the shot Philadelphia was looking for). Again, this is a quick, good read that doesn’t seem like much, but knowing Tatum and Brown are going to consistently make these decisions does wonders for the Celtics’ defensive confidence and consistency.
Yes, Tatum’s scoring will continue to make headlines for the remainder of the postseason, but next time you’re watching the highlights of his latest 30-point performance, don’t forget about the vital work he’s putting in on the other end.