Celtics

Jayson Tatum has unlocked his potential, and now anything is possible

Tatum's improvement is both real and sustainable.

Jayson Tatum. AP

Two questions remained unanswered, often frustratingly so, as Jayson Tatum endured growing pains while still blossoming into an All-NBA caliber player the past couple of seasons.

Was he capable of elevating his teammates?

And was he willing to do so if it meant sacrificing shots he was confident he could make?

The answers – a resounding, Marv Albert-like “yes!,” followed by another — have arrived during this stirring Celtics stretch in which they’ve won 12 of 14 games, 21 of 27, and have transformed from a team that found painfully creative ways to lose to one that looks determined to play deep into June.

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Tatum has unlocked his potential, all of it, and he’s at the point right now where he has the immediate answer to everything a defense is trying to do. He’s dribbling with purpose, attacking downhill, creating space, and knocking down open 3s, and finishing with ridiculous grace and creativity around the hoop.

Tommy Heinsohn once said, correctly even though he got some grief for it, that Paul Pierce had more different ways of scoring of any player in Celtics history. I so wish we could hear what Tommy would say about Tatum right now. Tatum is bigger, quicker, and darned near as crafty as Pierce. He has a chance to be the best pure scorer in Celtics history.

His ability to get a bucket is nothing new, of course. This is a player who dropped 50 points on the Nets in Game 3 of a playoff series last spring, a player who has a 60-point regular-season game to his credit. What is new is that he’s getting those buckets while also emerging as a willing and creative passer. And the Celtics are exponentially better because of it.

When Tatum scored 37 points on 14 of 25 shooting while also dishing out 5 assists in the Celtics’ thrilling 120-107 win over Ja Morant and the Grizzlies Thursday, I thought it was the most complete game he had ever played. Then he went out and topped it Sunday against the relentlessly annoying Nets.

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Tatum scored 54 points, and yet the box score doesn’t do his tour de force justice. His total of three assists would seem to suggest that he was in “takes-it, makes-it” mode all day, but it was about as an unselfish performance as a player dropping 54 points could possibly submit.

There was one play in the final minute that convinced me beyond a doubt that all of this – Tatum’s selfless play and, in a macro sense, the Celtics’ rapid revival after 2 ½ years of mediocrity – is both real and sustainable. Kevin Durant had just hit a short jumper to pull the Nets within 3, 118-115. The next possession was crucial for the Celtics.

With 45 seconds left, the ball came to Tatum straightaway at the 3-point line. Five seconds remained on the shot clock. A quick crossover didn’t shake the defender, and Tatum would have been almost justified in launching a contested 3. Instead, he did the right thing. He swung the ball to Marcus Smart, who resisted any temptation he might have had to shoot and immediately found Jaylen Brown in the corner. He pump-faked, showing impressive patience, then buried the corner 3. It was a remarkable display of ball-movement, teamwork, and poise. And it probably wouldn’t have happened that way a month ago.

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There are countless ways to slice up the credit pie (the rarely referenced cousin of the blame pie) for the Celtics’ success. Brad Stevens has made several beneficial moves in his first season as the president of basketball operations, including getting a rejuvenated Al Horford for Kemba Walker, acquiring glue-guy Derrick White from the Spurs, and locking up team heartbeat Marcus Smart and Most Improved Player candidate Robert Williams III on a contracts that look better by the day. The pieces finally fit.

The Celtics are finally playing the way first-year coach Ime Udoka implored them to – with a lockdown defense that rates as the league’s best at this writing,  and a selfless, decisive, ball-moving offense. There were times early in the season when his bluntness about his frustration with their ball-stopping, my-turn-now offensive approach seemed to fall on deaf ears. As it turned out, the players were listening, and they eventually figured it out – they’ve had more lovely Spurs-like passing sequences in this last two weeks than they have in the previous two years. It’s a credit to all of them. The players respect their coach. And their coach has earned it.

It was easy to get caught up in that sports-radio narrative that Tatum and Brown would never bring out the best in each other. There were moments in which the question was entirely fair. But it’s a shame that it came at the expense of recognizing their determination to become better basketball players. Tatum’s dedication to getting stronger and more powerful is almost never mentioned, and Brown’s occasional myopia on offense and lapses on defense too often overshadowed how he’d worked to improve  almost every aspect of his game since coming into the league.

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These guys always cared. It’s just that now it’s translated, in stunningly rapid fashion, to success, and not just individually but as a team. Tatum’s selfless play largely sets the tone, but every Celtic is doing the right thing.

Suddenly, the best-case scenarios for these Celtics all seem within range. They used to be annoying to watch. Now the only annoying thing about them is those days when they don’t have a game.

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