The Boston Celtics have gotten off to an up and down start to the season, now sitting above .500 (9-8) for the first time in 2021-22, following their 111-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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The absence of Jaylen Brown, who was averaging a career-high 25.6 points per game this season has certainly been felt as the swingman has now missed eight straight games with a right hamstring strain, putting more pressure on Jayson Tatum to carry the lions share of the offense.
While Tatum has been putting up solid numbers, his efficiency has taken a hit this season as opponents continue to send extra defensive attention his way.
As he so often does, Tatum finds his best on the biggest stage and his 37-point, 11-rebound performance in the Celtics 130-108 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on national television could just be the springboard he needs to return to his trademark elite-level scoring.
He followed that performance up with another stellar game against the Oklahoma City Thunder recording 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists on an efficient 11-of-22 from the field, 6-of-12 from the 3-point line and 5-of-7 at the free throw line — his third-straight game with 33+ points.
His 27 free throw attempts over his past four games, nearly matches his 28 from the six games prior, with a noticeable improvement in his willingness to attack the basket and seek contact.
Tatum’s efficiency has been below-par this season, with his average shot distance up to a career-high 15.1 feet, per Basketball-Reference as defenses have forced him into taking tougher contested mid-range shots, while keeping him away from the rim, where he’s attempting a career-low 19.2 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket.
Over the past three games, he’s kept things simple, attempting just one mid-range jumper in the loss to the Atlanta Hawks, while he did most of his damage against the Lakers at the rim and from the 3-point line, only attempting four mid-range jumpers (1-of-4) and going a perfect 7-of-7 at the free throw line.
Against the Thunder he went 3-of-6 from mid-range, but his six 3-pointers and a barrage of drives to the rim, kept the Thunder defence guessing all night, with Tatum looking more like the three-level scorer we’ve come to expect.
“Obviously I’m feeling better but I’m just getting back in the flow of things,” Tatum said postgame. “I’ve continued to work my butt off, no days off and things like that and just trust what I do. Every night’s not going to be perfect but just stay the course and don’t lose sight of what’s important.”
The Celtics have now won seven of their past 10 games and will next host the Rockets at TD Garden before they embark on a tough run of games, with their next 11 including matchups against the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Los Angels Lakers, LA Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks.
The good news, Jaylen Brown is expected to return to the floor soon to give them a much-needed boost.
“He’s close, he’s raring to play,” head coach Ime Udoka said ahead of their game against the Lakers. “We’re going to hold him back a little bit, myself and the medical staff. He really wanted to play tonight – let alone back home in Atlanta – but we feel he needs a little more time. He’s ramped it up over the last week or so. He’s not quite ready but he’ll be back soon.”
With Brown due back soon and Tatum firing on all cylinders, the Celtics look on track to gain some momentum to kick-start their season.