NEW YORK — Jayson Tatum knows he probably should have passed the ball.
After missing a big dunk that would have given the Boston Celtics a three-point lead in the final minute of a tight contest against the New York Knicks on Friday, Tatum chased down the rebound and kicked it out. Immediately, however, he re-established post position against Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and began backing down.
Kyrie Irving cut through the paint, one pass away. Tatum kept backing.
Marcus Smart was wide open at the top of the key. Tatum kept backing.
Lance Thomas dropped down, freeing Al Horford in the corner. Tatum kept backing.
And finally, with a little over 21 seconds left, Tatum whirled over his left shoulder and fired up a step-back jumper.
Marcus Morris has seen Tatum toss that shot up hundreds of times in practice.
“I would have swiped that,” Morris said. “Left-shoulder fadeaway on one foot. I already knew it was coming.”
But Morris wasn’t guarding him. Hardaway made a relatively strong defensive stand, closing hard and contesting Tatum’s jumper, but Tatum was too tall and too long. His shot dropped through, barely disturbing the net and giving the Celtics a 103-100 lead.
This kid is unreal. pic.twitter.com/RRrkmELJaa
a Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 21, 2018
Tatum is aware his game-winning shot probably didn’t need to be so difficult.
“Honestly, I probably should have passed it out after I missed the dunk,” Tatum said. “But I thought they were going to foul. I realized how much time was left, so I just tried to make up for it. I just missed the easy one.”
“He should have made the dunk,” Irving said, chuckling. “He should have made the dunk. I told him, ‘I can’t dunk it for you. I can only pass you the ball.’ We joke about it, but even when he got the ball back, it was like three people all on one side screaming for the basketball. I was weak side, had my hands up as well like ‘Yo, what’s going on?’ He just made an unbelievable move, dream shake, tough shot. That guy’s just super talented. To be so young, to be so poised, it’s an awesome trait for him.”
Tatum nearly blew it for himself again shortly after, fouling Trey Burke on a 3-point attempt and giving the Knicks a chance to tie with seconds remaining. But Burke missed the first free throw, and after making the second, he intentionally missed the third. Al Horford sprinted away with the rebound, ending the game.
Brad Stevens was asked post-game about Tatum’s execution down the stretch. After Tatum’s name, the question began to tail off a bit.
“Redeeming himself?” Stevens prompted.
“The execution was great,” Stevens said. “They got the slip on the first play and then on the second one Tatum spun out and had a layup and then, thankfully, stayed after it and got it back. It’s hard to win.”
Through three games, Tatum is comfortably the team’s leading scorer (21 points per game) and comfortably the leading rebounder (10.7). At times, he’s making difficult shots, and at others, he’s creating easier ones. With the usual caveats about the season having barely started, Tatum has kept the Celtics’ offense afloat where others have struggled — without Tatum’s contributions, the Celtics are shooting precisely 40 percent from the field.
“I think one of the key areas of emphasis has been core strength so that he can play lower longer,” Stevens said. “Especially with the way the game is being called now so you can’t wrap people and hold onto people. You’ve gotta be able to play low, you gotta be able to play in a stance. I think that that’s the No. 1 thing. He’s always been a guy that can put the ball in the hoop and can do a lot of positive things for your team but he can get a lot better in a lot of areas. I think it all centers around that core strength.”
Tatum says he’s only getting better with experience.
“I’m a lot more comfortable than I would have (been) last year,” Tatum said. “I think it just gets easier with time and as you play more games and get more relaxed.”