Workhorse: Jayson Tatum has taken on greater defensive responsibility

Fortunately for the Celtics, Jayson Tatum’s career progression has come with an ever-growing skill set and shoulders. Tatum carries a huge offensive burden for the Celtics on these shoulders, which are starting to look like a tribute to Dwight Howard. But Tatum’s value doesn’t lie in being a one-way offensive star; it is the combination of its offensive capacity And how incredibly good he has become as a defender.

Joe Mazzulla doesn’t hesitate to test the limits of Tatum’s defensive abilities, and in this series, he handed him his biggest matchup yet (literally). Tatum guarded Evan Mobley for 10 minutes more than any other Celtic in the series, and for almost exactly the same amount of time as Al Horford and Luke Kornet combined. In other words, Tatum plays center defense.

The reflection is twofold. On the one hand, it allows Al Horford to ignore Isaac Okoro and play the defensive drifter position made famous by Robert Williams. Horford’s results playing free safety have been mixed, but that has nothing to do with Tatum’s performance over Mobley.

Second, it limits the Cavs’ ability to run a pick-and-roll with Mobley as a screen setter where they like to highlight him without Jarrett Allen. In any pick-and-roll featuring a Boston defender who isn’t Derrick White or Payton Pritchard, Tatum can simply switch to ball handler, where he has been mostly excellent.

That’s not to say he hasn’t been beat at times, but Donovan Mitchell pretty much cooks everyone many times during a playoff series. His combination of explosive athleticism and sneaky handles is tough for even the best defenders.

He was also at times involved in miscommunications on high pick-and-rolls that resulted in open pull-ups for the Cavs. It’s hard to say who’s at fault, but it seems like Tatum sometimes falls when the guard expects him to switch.

But that’s picking nits. It was also extremely positive for the Celtics against the Cavs’ number one weapon.

Deploying Tatum as a center means he has to be very active as a helper on the edge, a challenge he and his shoulders have met with aplomb. Cavs players’ field goal percentage drops 6.7% when they take shots within 5 feet guarded by Tatum. This doesn’t sniff at the league’s elite rim protectors who often reduce FG% by more than 10%, but it’s much better than his -0.6% from the regular season. He is excellent at reading the game and competed without committing a foul.

He averages 1.3 blocks per game against the Cavs, many of whom are loud. But others emphasize his intelligence and the speed of his hands. Watch him on this play as he doesn’t commit to helping on the Mitchell route until it’s necessary. He somehow slips the ball and cleans it, leaving Mitchell confused as to what even happened.

Tatum is also a strong and active post defender. He made Mobley’s life difficult.

Mobley is shooting 75% against Tatum, which on the surface looks bad. The good news is that it’s only on 8 FGAs. Tatum also forced him into 4 turnovers. For comparison, Mobley made 13 shots against Al and 15 against Luke. Preventing shots on post-ups, which are usually very close to the rim, is just as important as impacting them, and Tatum did well to limit Mobley throughout the series. He turned Mobley towards his worst instinct: passivity.

Finally, if you want to play center, you have to rebound, a skill Tatum has been focusing on all season. This series is no exception. He easily leads the team in rebounds with 10.5 per game in the series, and his defensive rebounding percentage of 23.6% leads the Celtics by a whopping 6.8%. He’s also, somewhat shockingly, second on the team in box-outs (the NBA’s box-out tracking numbers are really wonky and I think they’re wrong. They seem to think teams box out about 10 times per game.). His 2.8 contested rebounds per game puts him just behind Luke Kornet.

Mazzulla deployed Tatum on centers at times during the season, but the fun is watching him trust Tatum to do it for long stretches in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Joe has tasked Tatum with something grueling and difficult, and he rises to the challenge. Lesson? Never bet against someone whose shoulders are the size of your head.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *