Jayson Tatum is showing his warts at the worst possible time. He is averaging 4.5 points on 23.5 percent shooting in the first two games of the Celtics’ second-round series with the Bucks, a performance that has brought every criticism of his up-and-down second season in the NBA to life. Tatum has turned into a score-first player who doesn’t space the floor, and he’s ending too many possessions by settling for the worst shots in basketball: contested 2-point jumpers. He has taken 17 shots in two games, but he has only three 3-point attempts, two free throw attempts, and two assists. Tatum is one of the most promising young players in the NBA, but he needs to change his approach to the game to live up to his potential. He doesn’t need to look far to find the perfect role model: Khris Middleton.
Middleton is dominating his individual matchup with Tatum in the series. He buried the Celtics in Game 2 on Tuesday, with 28 points on 10-for-18 shooting, including 7-for-10 from 3. Middleton, who made the first All-Star Game of his career this season, is having a coming-out party on the national stage. He has been almost as important to Milwaukee’s success as Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s the perfect second option: a versatile defender averaging 20.0 points, on 47.6 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game in the playoffs. The way he changed his game over seven seasons in the NBA should be the blueprint for Tatum. The Celtics need Tatum to play more like Middleton. It’s not that he can’t be a star. He just needs to learn there’s more to being one than taking a bunch of shots.
Middleton has picked up the slack for Giannis in this series. Antetokounmpo has struggled to score efficiently against the Celtics, averaging 25.5 points on 37.8 percent shooting in two games. He has had trouble getting around Al Horford, one of the most versatile defensive big men in the league, and the rest of the Boston defense is selling out to pack the paint and keep him on the perimeter on offense. They haven’t had as many answers for Middleton, though. While plus-minus numbers in such a small sample size can be deceiving, the impact that his presence on the floor has made in this series is striking:
Bucks Lineups vs. Celtics
|Lineup Combination||Minutes||Net Rating|
|Lineup Combination||Minutes||Net Rating|
|Giannis and Middleton||48||plus-0.0|
|Giannis w/o Middleton||17||minus-18.4|
|Middleton w/o Giannis||18||plus-23.0|
One of the most valuable aspects of Middleton’s game is his ability to excel in different roles, which has been the biggest issue for Tatum this season. He hasn’t been as comfortable playing off Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward as he was hunting for his own shot last season. Middleton does that multiple times over the course of a single game. He starts the game playing off of Giannis before running the offense when Giannis goes to the bench. He played 1,491 minutes with Giannis and 902 minutes without him in the regular season, and he goes from being used like a role player (with a usage rate of 19.5) in the former lineups to a superstar (31.0) in the latter.
The key to his success has been embracing the 3-point shot. Middleton has great size (6-foot-8 and 234 pounds) for a wing, but he’s only an average athlete. He can’t play like Giannis, who makes his living around the rim. He needs to attack the defense from every level of the court. He is finally doing that this season. Middleton is averaging a career high in 3-point attempts (6.2 per game) and in the percentage of his shots that come from behind the 3-point line (41.6). The change has improved every facet of his game. His improved ability to space the floor makes him a better complementary option to Giannis, while also giving him more room to attack off the dribble when Giannis is off the floor. He doesn’t need Giannis to thrive: His true shooting percentage improves when he’s the primary option. His performance against the Celtics isn’t a fluke. The Bucks had a higher net rating this season when Middleton played without Giannis (plus-12.2) than with him (plus-9.4).
That wouldn’t be possible if he were just a scorer. Middleton is one of the most well-rounded wings in the league. He’s an excellent playmaker who is second on the team in assists in the series (3.5 per game), with the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3-to-1). His ability to rebound like a bigger player (8.5 per game) allows Milwaukee to play the smaller lineups necessary to defend Boston in the pick-and-roll, an adjustment coach Mike Budenholzer made after the Bucks got blown off the floor in Game 1. Another key adjustment the coaching staff made in Game 2 was using Middleton on Hayward. The Celtics sixth man doesn’t have the same size advantage on Middleton as he does against Pat Connaughton, who guarded him in Game 1. He has shot 5-for-6 in 31 possessions in the series with Connaughton as his primary defender and 0-for-4 in 53 possessions against Middleton. Budenholzer can use Middleton to fill almost any hole for his team over the course of a series.
Boston doesn’t ask nearly as much of Tatum, who has taken a step back after an incredible performance in the playoffs as a rookie. He averaged 18.5 points per game on 47.1 percent shooting while leading an undermanned team without Irving or Hayward to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Tatum famously dunked on LeBron James in the fourth quarter of that game, and spent the summer working out with Kobe Bryant. He seemed poised for stardom. Instead, the return of Hayward and Irving forced him into a smaller role in the offense that exposed some of the holes in his game. Tatum is most comfortable playing with the ball in his hands, and he doesn’t have the versatility to impact the game without scoring.
The comparison with Middleton is instructive. Middleton is significantly better in almost every aspect of the game: spacing the floor, passing, defending, and rebounding. Tatum is an excellent 3-point shooter (career 40.0 percent from 3), but he takes only 3.5 3s per game. There is some Carmelo Anthony in his game: He loves to isolate in the midrange, and he doesn’t pass the ball much. He averages only 2.1 assists and 1.5 turnovers per game. He doesn’t do too much on defense, either. He has spent a lot of time against the Bucks hiding on guys like Nikola Mirotic, Pat Connaughton, and Sterling Brown. The one area in which Tatum may have a slight edge on Middleton is the ability to create 2s off the dribble, but that skill is only so valuable when he’s playing on a team with so many other shot creators.
Tatum is a good enough scorer that he could still help Boston in this series even if he doesn’t change his approach. Young players tend to play better at home in the playoffs than on the road, and he’s not the type of player who will allow a few bad games to shake his confidence. He’s coming off a dominant performance in the Celtics’ first-round sweep of Indiana, where he averaged 19.3 points on 50.9 percent shooting. There are still only so many shots to go around, though, especially against elite teams. The Celtics need Tatum to spot up at the 3-point line, move the ball, and concentrate on defense if they are going to win three more playoff series this season. They need him to become their version of Middleton.
It’s not an easy sell. Middleton wasn’t the player he is today in his second season in the league. He played a lot like Tatum, even averaging the same number of 3-point attempts and assists per game. Middleton wasn’t always willing to sacrifice his game for the benefit of his team. He had legendary one-on-one battles with Giannis in practice when the two were younger, as each fought to prove they were the best player on the team. He had the luxury of figuring out who he was in the NBA while playing for a small-market team without many expectations. His game wasn’t being put under the same microscope that Tatum’s is now. It’s hard to convince younger players to take a step back. It has real costs. Middleton has a usage rate of only 25.1 this season. He could have bigger stats and a much higher profile if he were the primary option on a different team.
The same possibility has to have occurred to Tatum. He has been linked in trade rumors to Anthony Davis all season, and he hasn’t taken it nearly as hard as his peers on the Lakers. Tatum wouldn’t have to share the ball on the Pelicans, who would likely begin a full rebuild if they trade Davis. He would get the chance to be the primary option, and he wouldn’t have players like Kyrie scolding him for hunting for his own shot. Young players who start their careers on elite teams have a hard time understanding how difficult it is to get to that level. It’s just normal to them. Tatum was the leading scorer on a team that was a few plays away from making the NBA Finals. He was on the cover of GQ at 20 years old: Why should he change his game to be more like Middleton when he already has a bigger profile?
The problem for Tatum is that embracing his inner Middleton is his only path toward being an elite player. He can’t afford to have any holes in his game. He doesn’t have the same physical gifts as the best wings in the NBA. Tatum doesn’t have the length of Giannis, the height of Kevin Durant, the frame of Kawhi Leonard, or the explosiveness of Paul George. He’s built more like Otto Porter Jr. He has the size, shooting, and ballhandling ability to create his own shot whenever he wants, but there are dozens of players in the league who can do that. Tatum needs to take the most efficient shots on the floor, and he needs to learn how to read and manipulate the defense. There is no reason that he can’t. After all, he is still only 21. The Celtics just need him to grow up faster than he wants.