Chris Forsberg

Tatum's two-way evolution on display in Celtics' loss to Thunder

The Celtics star continues to seek out challenging defensive assignments.

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We’re not in the business of silver linings, particularly when the Boston Celtics' singular goal is so lofty. But if you’re going to pluck a positive from Tuesday’s loss in Oklahoma City, it should be the overall play of Jayson Tatum.

Despite being hounded by defensive pest Lu Dort for much of the night, Tatum totaled 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting while adding 13 rebounds and eight assists. More importantly, Tatum requested to guard MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander over the final five-plus minutes of regulation as the Celtics feverishly tried to rally out of an 18-point hole.

Tatum wasn’t perfect on Gilgeous-Alexander -- no one ever will be -- but on a night when no one had a solution to SGA drives, Tatum did his best to use his length to disrupt the Thunder guard. Gilgeous-Alexander posted a game-high 36 points and added 21 assist points, with all seven of his helpers leading to 3-point shots.

“He had it going so I just wanted to switch on him,” Tatum told reporters after game while acknowledging he requested to guard the MVP candidate.

Tatum’s defensive potential is no secret but he often exerts so much energy on the offensive end that it limits the output on the defensive side. There are games when the Celtics need him to more frequently take on the challenge of defending an opposing team’s best player, particularly given the amount of offensive talent the team now boasts.

The NBA’s tracking data suggests that Tatum’s most frequent defensive assignments on Tuesday night -- the tandem of Dort (5:09 of matchup time) and Gilgeous-Alexander (3:16) -- scored just five points on 2-of-8 shooting with Tatum as the primary defender. The Thunder as a whole were 5-of-14 shooting for 13 points against Tatum, per NBA tracking.

Take those numbers with a grain of salt. Gilgeous-Alexander is such a blur with the ball that even the NBA’s cameras struggle to identify the defender logging the most time on him on various possessions. But re-watch the final five minutes and you’ll see an engaged Tatum trying his hardest to slow him.

Tatum bit on a pump fake and fouled Gilgeous-Alexander in one sequence with 4:32 to play but did a better job staying down and forcing either a miss or a pass in other instances the rest of the way. 

For the season, opponents are shooting 46.6 percent against Tatum, per NBA tracking, which is slightly below expected output (47.2 percent). That’s better than Tatum’s mark a year ago (0.3 percent above expected) but well below the 2021-22 season, when he held opponents to 42.2 percent shooting (and 3 percent below expected output).

The encouraging part is that Tatum continues to try to find ways to impact the game beyond scoring. Coming off a poor shooting month in December, one in which the Celtics were impossibly better with him on the bench than on the court, Tatum is making subtle strides in other areas of the game.

On Tuesday night, Tatum was a particularly engaged rebounder against the size-deprived Thunder. NBA tracking suggests that 38.5 percent of his rebounds (5 out of 13) were contested boards, which is nearly double his season average (19.9 percent). 

Even more encouraging is that Tatum finished with 13 potential assists. His 23 points created off assists was his second-highest total of the season. If Jaylen Brown doesn’t have an off shooting night, including going 0-for-3 shooting on 3-pointers off Tatum feeds, that total might have been even higher. The Celtics were 9-of-20 shooting overall off Tatum feeds. For sake of comparison, the Thunder were 9-of-17 shooting off SGA passes, including a sizzling 7-of-12 beyond the 3-point arc.

Yes, it all rings a bit hollow when Boston’s rally falls short. But, if nothing else, it’s a reminder that Tatum can take on that challenge and give the Celtics the best chance to succeed.

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