BOSTON — With 1:26 left in Sunday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics needed a basket to put themselves up five and in the driver’s seat, so they went to rookie Jayson Tatum.
For observers who have watched Tatum over the last 14 games, the fact that a team with NBA Finals aspirations would go to their rookie in the clutch has become less and less remarkable, if no less impressive. Once again on Sunday, Tatum came through. He caught the pass at the top of the key, faked slightly to his right to throw off Kyle Lowry and went to his left, converting a difficult right-handed layup around Fred Van Vleet. It was an impressive finish that brought the crowd to its feet and sparked post-game praise from his teammates.
The layup did not, however, elicit much of a response from Tatum when he was asked whether he is comfortable in late-game situations.
“Uh, yeah,” Tatum said. “I guess so.”
And the conversation moved on.
How uncomfortable Tatum seemed when asked to talk himself up is almost a direct inverse to how comfortable he seems in the clutch. The rookie had a rare off night from the field, finishing 6-for-15 and 1-for-4 from behind the arc, but he had a pair of baskets in the fourth quarter before his final layup that helped keep a surging Raptors team at bay.
“I think that’s where Jayson comes alive,” Jaylen Brown said. “A lot of players on this team come alive in the fourth quarter, and Jayson is one of them. When the game is on the line is when we perform the best, and Jayson is one of those type of players that you give him the ball in the clutch, he can make something happen. Even in summer league he was making shots like that, just he’s beyond his years, and he’s going to continue to get better.”
Tatum’s skill set lends itself well to becoming a clutch player. As time winds down, teams generally look to scorers who can do things on their own — make jumpers, attack closeouts, pull up off the dribble or get to the rim. In his first 14 games as an NBA players — an absurdly small sample size — Tatum has proven he can do all of those things. Per Cleaning the Glass, he is in the 72nd percentile among players at his position on long two-pointers, and even after a pair of off nights, he has hit an absurd 41.2 percent of his 3-pointers over the last five games.
Defenders are starting to catch on to his shooting, but Tatum’s ability to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts is nearly as advanced as his ability to hit shots off the catch. He needs to be more efficient at the rim (52 percent, which is the 27th percentile) but he gets there on 44 percent of his shots, which is in the 80th percentile.
The percentages around the rim will come. Tatum can do everything else, which — at his age, and especially in the closing minutes of an extremely tense game — is what makes him special.
“He’s always been a guy that’s been wired to make plays and to score the ball, so it’s not a huge surprise that he feels comfortable in those moments,” Brad Stevens said. “But in the last couple of games, and specifically Friday night, we really needed him to make those plays. Today he was playing more against close-outs because other people were drawing the attention instead of just individual isolation plays. And he took advantage of that.”
“It’s just matchups,” Tatum added. “Sometimes when guys get a paint touch and kick it out and the defense is on their heels, that’s a sign that it’s a good time to attack, not always for your own shot but another paint threat.”
Brown was asked if Tatum is playing older than his age.
“Yeah, and he’s a year and a half younger than me,” Brown said, smiling. “So I make sure I remind him of that.”