Being almost the best player in the NBA is a far cry from being the best. Just ask Jayson Tatum.
After toppling Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBAplayoffs, Tatum and his Boston Celtics currently trail 0-1 in a second-round series against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Though Tatum outplayed Durant in the first round, he couldn’t outmaneuver Antetokounmpo, who showed why he’s the reigning Finals MVP with a dominant performance in the first game of the Bucks-Celtics matchup.
Of course, games between NBA teams are not reducible to matchups between superstars, but Tatum’s performances against Durant and Antetokounmpo in many ways represent the successes and struggles of his team. The climb up the rungs of the superstar ladder is fraught with increasing and diverse challenges, as Tatum and the Celtics know all too well.
The first-round series wasn’t the first time Tatum faced Durant in the playoffs. In 2021, the Nets topped the Celtics in five games, but Boston’s lone win came on May 28 when Tatum scored 50 points, still his playoff career high. But how he guarded Durant this time around — and how he shot with Durant guarding him — was arguably what tipped the scales between the two teams.
|Shots per 100||QSQ||eFG%|
Per 100 matchups of Durant guarding Tatum, the Celtics scored more than 4 points greater this year than in 2021. Per 100 matchups of Tatum guarding Durant, the Nets scored more than 50 points fewer this year.
Tatum was an MVP-caliber player in 2021-22, finishing the regular season with the second-highest RAPTOR WAR, more than doubling his output from last year. That’s despite almost no change in his offensive approach.
He’s always been a tough-shot maker, with neither his expected nor actual effective field-goal percentage shifting dramatically in the past three seasons. His major box score averages almost ossified from 2020-21 to 2021-22. Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s taking fewer midrange shots and shifting those both to the rim and behind the arc, but the changes in frequency aren’t stark — only a few percentage points each way. His accuracy from all three areas is practically unchanged. Per Second Spectrum, his frequency and efficiency in the pick and roll and isolation also haven’t budged by much from last year.
The change has been on the defensive end, where Tatum has improved dramatically. This season, he defended more shots per 100 possessions and forced a higher share of misses from those looks, per Second Spectrum. He has defended almost every action better, allowing fewer points per chance whether defending pick and rolls, isolations or handoffs. Last season, for the first time in his career, the Celtics were better defensively with Tatum on the bench. This year, he had the best on/off defensive rating per 100 possessions on the Celtics — a team that includes Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart.
That defensive performance carried over to the first round. Yet after multiple seasons of remarkably consistent offense, it was Tatum’s offensive performance that changed against the Nets. Unlike the tendency of most NBA stars, he actually averaged fewer shots per game in the first round than he did in the regular season. His assists skyrocketed from 4.4 per game to 7.3 against Brooklyn, which marked the second-largest jump from the regular season to the first round among players who average 20 or more minutes per game.
|Assists per game|
|Player||Team||First round||Regular season||Diff.|
The means by which Tatum collected his increased assists in the first round is telling. Though he averaged only 2.3 extra passes per game, he averaged 5.1 more potential assists. His passes became more dangerous, more predicated on advantage creation than resetting the play; per Second Spectrum, his pass types that saw the largest increase in assist rate were interior-focused “kickout” and “attacking” passes, while his “perimeter” passes, actually saw a lower assist rate in the first round. The Celtics scored more efficiently when he passed rather than shot.
In the first game of the second round, Tatum continued his approach. He even increased his rate of passing, throwing the most in any of his games yet in the playoffs. He threw six “kickout” passes in the first quarter, which tied for Tatum’s most in a first quarter all season. Though he had 16 potential assists, he ended up with only six actual assists because of some cold shooting from his teammates.1 At the same time, the star-on-star matchup was muted throughout the game; Tatum guarded Antetokounmpo on only five possessions, and Giannis didn’t shoot on any of them. Antetokounmpo was Tatum’s primary defender only once, per Second Spectrum.
Antetokounmpo represents a different type of challenge from Durant. He’s more physical, taking 11 shots at the rim in Game 1 while Durant took seven in his entire series. And Giannis is flanked by a far larger team than the Nets. As a result, Tatum struggled in the paint, shooting 2-for-7 within 5 feet against Milwaukee after averaging 3.3 makes in 7 shots at the rim per game against Brooklyn. Some of that was variance in shooting — Tatum recorded his highest qualified Shot Quality in these playoffs in Game 1 against the Bucks, suggesting he missed some shots he would normally make.
Though Antetokounmpo didn’t spend much time as Tatum’s primary defender, he blocked two of Tatum’s layup attempts as the helper coming from the corner. It seems both coaches are saving their stars as the primary defender on the opposing star as a possible adjustment. Which means in future games, Tatum may have to spend more time trying to keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint while the former Defensive Player of the Year guards him. Tatum thrived in the first round while trading jumpers with Durant. Against Antetokounmpo, the game might become more paint-oriented for Boston’s superstar.
Tatum is learning that even after you overcome one superstar, you might have to change your game dramatically to take down the next. That’s life when you’re trying to be the best — you have to beat the best, no matter how they play.
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