Why Tatum’s playoff shooting slump is a non-issue for Celtics

Why Tatum’s playoff shooting slump is a non-issue for Celtics

“It’s just the casuals who think it’s all about the shots.”

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Jrue Holiday, Joe Mazzulla, and Payton Pritchard talk at practice on Wednesday about how Jayson Tatum has been great at letting the game come to him during the playoffs

A quick glance at the Boston Celtics’ playoff stats through six games reveals one potential area of concern.

Jayson Tatum is only shooting 40.6 percent from the floor, ranking fifth among Boston’s eight rotation players? He’s dead-last among Celtics rotation players in 3-point percentage (25 percent) and third in points per game (21.2), down more than five points from his regular-season scoring average (26.9)?

Those stats are all accurate, and after Tatum mustered just 18 points on 7 of 19 shooting (0 of 5 from 3) in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, there’s been increased chatter about Tatum’s lack of offensive production being a potential issue for the title-favorite Celtics.

Head coach Joe Mazzulla responded to that chatter Wednesday with some Tatum stats of his own.

Why Tatum's playoff shooting slump is a non-issue for Celtics

“I don’t think he’s being forced to do anything,” Mazzulla told reporters when asked about teams trying to limit Tatum’s scoring output. “I mean, he was 1.6 (points per possession) as a screener in our offense (in Game 1), which would be the best offense in the history of the world. He had 11 potential assists and he had 18 points and three blocks.

“So, I think he’s doing a great job of taking what the defense gives him and finding any way to impact the game on both ends of the floor. That’s what we need him to be, and I think he’s doing a really good job of it.”

While Tatum’s scoring is down, his playmaking is up significantly. He’s averaging 5.3 assists per game this postseason — fourth among all non-guards in the playoffs behind only Nikola Jokic, LeBron James and Joel Embiid — and leads the Celtics with 9.7 potential assists per game.

“I think he’s becoming a playmaker, or he’s being a playmaker,” veteran guard Jrue Holiday said of Tatum. “Not that he’s being the sacrificial lamb, but he’s making a lot of the right plays. He takes his chances where people are gonna double-team him, and he’s gonna take some of those shots, but I think he’s getting everybody open looks.”

The Celtics boast a ridiculous 126.4 offensive rating this postseason with Tatum on the floor, and that number plummets to 101.7 when he’s off the floor. But the stat that matters most to Boston is winning, and he’s made considerable strides in impacting it in these playoffs, even when his shot isn’t falling.

Consider this: The Celtics are 4-0 with a double-digit average point differential this postseason when Tatum shoots worse than 40 percent from the floor, and 2-0 when he scores fewer than 20 points. Boston’s combined record in those scenarios in the previous two postseasons: 7-8 and 4-6, respectively.

“People can have bad shooting nights, but what is he doing? He has great defensive plays, he made the easy passes, which led to assists and big rebounds,” Celtics guard Payton Pritchard added of Tatum.

“It’s just the casuals who think it’s all about the shots. There’s so many different areas he can affect the game, and if he only ends up with 18 points, but like we win by 25 points, he was very impactful.”

To Pritchard’s point, Tatum’s facilitating helped Boston to a 25-point rout of the Cavs on Tuesday night. The Celtics star was content to let Jaylen Brown (32 points) and Derrick White (25 points) carry the load on offense while setting up his teammates (five assists) and impacting the game in other ways (11 rebounds, three blocks).

The further the C’s advance in the postseason, the slimmer the margin for error, and there might be a point where they need more from their superstar in the scoring department. But this is the same player who owns the NBA record for most points in a Game 7 and dropped 46 points on the road to stave off elimination in a Game 6.

If Tatum fails to deliver in higher-stakes playoff scenarios, he’ll open himself up to deserved criticism. In the meantime, however, his playmaking shouldn’t go unnoticed as Boston steamrolls through Rounds 1 and 2.

Game 2 of Celtics-Cavs is set for Thursday at 7 p.m. ET, with NBC Sports Boston’s coverage beginning at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live from TD Garden.

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