The key to the Boston Celtics’ championship pursuit

The Boston Celtics have quite a few star players, but Jayson Tatum may be the key to contending for a championship in 2018-19.

Nobody likes injuries. They truly are the worst part of sports, but there always seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. It just so happens that in Boston, the tunnel was about six feet, eight inches long — a pretty quick drive.

After star forward Gordon Hayward‘s gruesome ankle injury in the first game last season, the Boston Celtics were forced to turn to a 19-year-old question mark. A 19-year-old who, coming out of the draft, “couldn’t shoot the 3-ball, couldn’t play defense and was too weak.”

Whoops. Think the Philadelphia 76ers want a do-over?

The original plan for Jayson Tatum‘s rookie season was to be a swing-forward backup to Marcus Morris and Hayward. He was a player who could play both spots, score the basketball, and have his defense covered up by Al Horford, Marcus Smart and, well, just about everyone else on the roster.

Tatum still has a lot to work on defensively, but he is serviceable enough. It helps Brad Stevens has kept Horford effective as an elite defensive center in his early 30s. (What are they drinking in that Boston locker room?)

On the other hand, Tatum’s offensive gifts are polished well beyond his age. He has shown to be a great volume scorer with a deadly 20-foot jumper, as well as proven his ability to blow past just about any defender.

Oh, also he jammed all over LeBron James in the playoffs and then bumped him. Bold to say the least.

The biggest thing the Celtics need from Tatum this season is efficiency. There’s still only one basketball and last I heard, Kyrie Irving likes to score. So does Horford, Hayward, Jaylen Brown and that 2-for-14 shooting performance from Terry Rozier in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals speaks for itself.

This means less basketball for Tatum. Less basketball means less shots. Less shots means Tatum better be sure he’s scoring at an efficient clip.

Last season, Tatum got off to a wicked hot start for a rookie thrust into meaningful rotation minutes so quickly. In October, November and December, Tatum shot 48.4 percent, 49.7 percent and 52.9 percent, respectively. Something must have happened at Christmas dinner, because Tatum’s January and February shooting percentages dipped to right around 42 percent each month.

Shooting percentages don’t always tell the whole tale, but dipping that drastically is cause for concern in Tatum’s game. Nonetheless, he rebounded with a super productive March and an average April.

It seems Tatum’s poor January and February were attributed to the grueling length to the NBA season. Often times, rookies fall into that mini-slump and bounce back after the All-Star break. Tatum did just that, posting 15 points per game on 47.7 percent shooting after the break.

Tatum blew the doors open in the postseason by putting up a whopping 18.5 points per game, almost five points more than his regular season average. He seemed to fit right in, and embraced being “the man” with Kyrie Irving out for the playoffs.

This will be a different year for Tatum, and how he responds to being second or even third fiddle will be absolutely vital to Boston’s season. The 76ers are rising. The Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks have superstar forwards. Boston needs production and efficiency from its 20-year-old star.

Next: 10 bold predictions for 2018-19 NBA season

The Celtics are the team to beat in the East. Nobody has the depth, star power and talent they have, and they need to wield that into their first NBA Finals appearance in nine years.

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