It’s easy to forget this now, with his team atop the NBA and a Finals berth in his rearview mirror, but the Miami Heat actually gave Jayson Tatum a fair bit of trouble in the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago. He averaged “only” 23.8 points on relatively inefficient shooting numbers in the last five games of the series. A similarly uneven series against Golden State contributed to Boston’s Finals loss. At the time there was a sense that while Tatum had ascended to the upper levels of the league’s star class, he was still just a hair short of where he’d need to be for the Celtics to win the championship.
Well, if those doubts really existed, they’re gone now. Tatum’s 2022-23 season speaks for itself. Nearly 31 points per game entering Wednesday. The best defense of his career. A 17-4 record to put Boston atop the Eastern Conference. In 20 games, Tatum had been held below 25 points only three times. He’s shooting almost 60 percent on 2-pointers. And on Wednesday, he faced the team that gave him so much trouble in the Eastern Conference Finals and dropped the best game of his season on them in a 134-121 victory.
In 39 minutes against Miami on Wednesday, Tatum scored 49 points on 25 field goal attempts. He made eight of his 12 3-point attempts, pulled in 11 rebounds, and after Miami pulled within four points in the fourth quarter, delivered eight points of his own in the final six minutes and change to secure the victory. As the cherry on top, he became the youngest player in NBA history to reach 900 made 3-pointers.
It was a masterpiece, and yet it represented an increasingly frequent phenomenon. While Tatum isn’t going to score 49 points every night, the ingredients for such a performance were already there. The primary difference Wednesday was that Tatum, who had been slumping from 3 relative to his own high standards by making around 35 percent of his attempts from deep thus far this season, hit 66.7 percent of his bombs against the Heat. Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla mused after the game that Tatum creates roughly 15-18 points per game purely based on what he does off of the ball. It’s what prevents him from ever dipping below 25 points. Tatum is so good and such a complete player that the only thing preventing him from playing this well every night is shooting luck.
But given his history, that is going to start turning. Tatum shoots over 38 percent from deep for his career. If he gets back there without losing his gains from within the arc this season, he’s going to keep putting up monster box scores like he did against the Heat. If he does that, it’s going to be extremely difficult to deny him the MVP award.
It’s a crowded race this season. Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic can match Tatum statistically, but neither have defended at his level or, to this point, won at his level. Giannis Antetokounmpo checks those boxes, but he’s struggled at the line thus far this season and, incredibly for a player with his size and track record, has shot worse from inside the arc (58.4 percent to Tatum’s 59.2). Devin Booker needs better numbers to enter the picture. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander simply won’t win enough. Nikola Jokic’s numbers are down from his two MVP seasons.
We’re at only the quarter-mark of the season thus far. Nothing is set in stone. But by this point in most seasons, a clear front-runner has emerged in the MVP race. Right now, it looks like that player is Tatum. If he keeps scoring, defending and winning at his current pace, it’s going to be extremely difficult for anyone to catch him.