Jayson Tatum is him.
Please step into my DeLorean and allow me to take you back to ancient history. Also, please ignore the fact that I’m a fraud and have never seen Back to the Future all the way through. It’s one of my many character flaws.
The date is December 17, 2021. The Celtics are 14-14 entering a home game with the 23-5 Golden State Warriors. If you suggested a mere seven months later these teams would be squaring off in The Finals, you would have been immediately thrown into one of Boston PD’s drunk tanks until you sobered up. You may not remember this one — that’s probably because it blends into all of the other disappointing losses incurred in the calendar year of 2021. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: after going down early, the C’s got themselves back into the game with a big third quarter only to fall just short in the fourth. In other words, this game was the epitome of the “Fake Comeback” Celtics.
Perhaps the biggest culprit in perpetuating Fake Comebacks during this, thankfully brief, was Jayson Tatum. Tatum’s numbers in this game look good, bordering on great: 9-for-19 from the floor, 27 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and one turnover. But here are his numbers from him in that critical game-defining fourth quarter against the eventual champions: 2 for 7 FGs and zero assists. But hey, he didn’t have a turnover.
Two of those missed shots came in the dying seconds with the game mostly out of reach. Here are all of his field goal attempts by him in the fourth:
Tatum goes 2/7 with zero assists in the 4th quarter. Celtics lose close one to Golden State. pic.twitter.com/vo4d6N9WgO
— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) November 27, 2022
Much worse than his numbers was his decision-making. Early clock step-backs. Driving into the teeth of defense. Tossing up no-prayer layups while ignoring open corner shooters (hey, he got bailed out with a foul call on one!). All the things that took years off the lives of many Celtics fans last season.
It seemed like as the game got tighter, as opposing defenses started to turn the screws, Tatum eschewed the right play for the easy one. Why move the ball to the seemingly open man when you know can you get a shot off? After all, any shot is better than no shot. Here’s a very well done and beautiful graphic I made of Tatum’s fourth quarter decision-making prior to this season:
This particular brand of problem is especially detrimental when the man with the problem has the role of a high usage superstar. When your leader forgoes open shooters for bad pull-ups or ugly floaters, that breeds frustration and a culture of selfishness. If the ball never comes back to you when you pass it, you’re going to be hesitant to get rid of it when you finally do get to touch it.
At times, I think Tatum was unfairly painted with the selfish brush, but there was undoubtedly some truth to it, and it often manifested in how he handled fourth quarters. You could argue that his late game struggles are the reason the Celtics didn’t hang Banner 18. Just go back and watch Game 4 of the Finals. Personally, I would rather spend my time watching one of my favorite films, Back to the Future, but if you are into self-harm, Game 4 is a great watch.
Well, sometimes you need to fail to learn, which is a strategy I successfully employed my freshman year of college. Boy, did Jayson Tatum fail, and boy, did he learn. First, let’s take a look at how the team performed last year in fourth quarters compared to this season.
Last year’s net rating by quarter: pic.twitter.com/sWM9kzjoZx
— Tom Bassine (@tvbassine) November 26, 2022
Updated net rating by quarter table: pic.twitter.com/vi2lGHM7ex
— Tom Bassine (@tvbassine) November 26, 2022
The numbers are telling us that the Celtics were basically a net even in the fourth quarter last year. And this year, they’ve totally redeemed themselves, outscoring teams by over 10 points per 100 possessions. The biggest difference? The play of Jayson Tatum and specifically his maturity in his decision-making. I thought this play was incredibly illustrative of this point.
Here, Tatum is running the high pick and roll with Luke Kornet. It’s not technically “clutch time,” but an 11-point game at the start of the fourth can very quickly become clutch time with a few poor possessions. When he comes off the Kornet screen, Sabonis shows quickly then scrambles back to his man. Tatum is left 1-on-1 against KZ Okpala. I would have bet my savings account this was going to be a bad step-back over a decent defender. You can almost feel it about to happen as Tatum starts getting into his size up move, but then BAM, he throws this slick little underhand pass to Brogdon, who drives hard and tries to hit the open Sam Hauser.
This doesn’t lead to points, it’s not an assist for Tatum, but it’s the right play. You do the right thing over and over through the course of a season as a superstar, it will infect your teammates and get guys like Luke Kornet somehow looking like a positive rotation player. Importantly, Tatum seems to finally understand the impact the way he approaches the game impacts not only his game, but his teammates’ game as well:
“Every season, I’m just trying to get better in every aspect. Just trying to be better… and impact the game all over. Offensively and on the defensive end. I think that’s contagious throughout the whole team.”
Tatum’s stats in fourth quarters don’t just tell this story; they blast it from the top of a stage like Marty McFly at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea dance playing Johnny B. Goode in my favorite film Back to the Future. What’s compiled in the chart below are stats that I think capture decision-making as best as possible. I’ve put in Tatum’s numbers from last year for an easy comparison. All of these numbers are just for fourth quarters.
The True Shooting and Net Rating jumps are great. The uptick in Assist Percentage is wonderful, and it’s encouraging that his increased ability to get to the line extends into fourth quarters. It’s something he’s clearly focused on and has noted in interviews:
“Just the older I get, the more my body develops, the more I’m able to make contact. And also just reading when we’re in the bonus, time, and situation of the game. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at that over the years.”
But what truly matters — and makes the point I’m trying to prove — is the Assist-to-Turnover Ratio from effectively 1-to-1 to over 3-to-1. That’s a 1.21 Gigawatts sized jump in Tatum’s ability to take care of the ball during the point in the game where teams dial up the intensity and defensive effort.
There’s a calmness and maturity to the way Tatum is playing in fourth quarters that just didn’t exist last year. At times, you almost got the impression that he felt like he had to take over. He had to be the one to make the big shot, and so, he was singularly focused on doing just that.
This season, he’s doing the opposite. He’s not just taking what the defense gives him, he’s exploiting their failures without getting lured into bad shots (ok, not always, but it’s less often). Take this play for example.
Another simple high screen and roll for Tatum and Kornet. This time they switch it with Sabonis taking Tatum. Sabonis is on his heels when JT hits him with the behind the back step-back dribble and can easily get off a pull-up three. He doesn’t though. In fact, he sees Monk heading his way to double, which means the defender of the weak-side shooter, Hauser again in this case, has to help on Kornet. That leaves Hauser wide open, and you may not believe this, but he buries it.
It’s indicative of a mindset change for Tatum, which has bled into the entire team. It’s a significant reason why the team has the best offense of all time and plays some of the most aesthetically pleasing basketball in the league. More importantly, this isn’t an artificial change. He’s dedicated himself to making the right play no matter the game situation and no matter the quarter. It’s all well and good if you play the right way for three quarters, but if you throw it all away in the fourth, you’re left with just another Fake Comeback. Luckily for the Celtics, Tatum seems to have embraced this new, unselfish way to play, and C’s fans everywhere get to sit back and enjoy the ride.