Jayson Tatum doesn’t want to chase huge scoring numbers — he wants to win

The Celtics star is focused on the bigger picture.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn NetsPhoto by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Luka Doncic scored 73 points earlier this season. Joel Embiid had 70. Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game is within reach, and Wilt Chamberlain’s once untouchable 100-point mark has never felt more achievable.

So, when Jayson Tatum poured in 16 first-quarter points on Tuesday night against the Brooklyn Nets, eyebrows raised. And when he matched it with a 15-point second, sirens were sounding. At the very least, a 60-bomb was in play.

Fans wanted to watch history.

Tatum wasn’t eager to make it.

“No temptation,” Tatum said of chasing a huge scoring night. “I’ve had my fair share of 50s. I’ve scored 60 before. I know I could do that. But it’s all about just playing in a rhythm.”

On the first Boston Celtics possession of the second half, the ball found Tatum in the corner. Jrue Holiday dumped the ball to him and set a screen. Ben Simmons, who was guarding Tatum, went over the screen and chased his guy. But Cam Thomas also picked him up, stopping the drive.

Holiday stepped back and found himself wide-open from three, draining a triple to put the Celtics up by 18. The pass was nothing special, but Tatum’s presence alone created an open shot.

As the quarter went on, Tatum’s control continued, but it didn’t always show up as an assist.

Midway through the third, Tatum once again found himself handling the ball on the wing. Al Horford set a screen, and Nicolas Claxton switched onto Tatum. Then Holiday came over to screen for him.

Thomas pressed up on Tatum on the screen, but Claxton hesitated to get between Holiday in the hoop. He was locked in on Tatum. Holiday positioned himself perfectly, bodying Claxton and allowing Tatum to dump the ball inside.

Once he caught it, the defense collapsed, and Holiday found Derrick White on the opposite wing for an open three, which he nailed.

“[I] came out [in the] second half understanding [that] they might guard me differently or come hitch, so I was handling the ball a lot more and just trying to manipulate the defense,” Tatum said.

“Guys kept setting screens, they would get behind the defense, [and] I would throw it over the top. Whether they scored or not or kicked it out for a hockey assist, I was just trying to find ways to impact the game more than just scoring.”

Tatum is a scorer. It has been and likely always will be his greatest asset. He’s scored 60 points in the regular season, he’s dropped 50 points in the playoffs, and he now has more 30-point games than Larry Bird through the first seven seasons of their respective careers.

But as he’s continued to grow as a player, Tatum has expanded his skillset. He’s averaging a career-high 4.7 assists this season. And on a team with as much talent as this Celtics group has, his improved playmaking has never been more important.

“His growth as far as just taking what the defense gives him,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “I think his shot selection has been great over the stretch. I think his patience has been great over the stretch, reading the defense [and] manipulating the defense. I just think he’s continuing to get better and better as a player, and you saw that tonight.”

The challenge of studying defenses and prepping for fluctuating coverages is one that Tatum has embraced.

“Just patience and poise, just understanding,” Mazzulla said of Tatum’s biggest point of growth in reading defenses. “I think being open-minded to, ‘Tonight, I might get doubled tonight, they might… they might front, they might press up on me.’

“So, I think just the open-mindedness to understand how he’s going to be guarded differently every night. And then he’s quickly recognizing that during the game and using that to his advantage. So, he’s enjoying studying the defenses.”

In-Season Tournament - Brooklyn Nets v Boston CelticsPhoto by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaylen Brown is an All-NBA wing. Holiday is 11th in the league in three-point percentage and was an All-Star last season. White is putting up career-high numbers across the board. Kristaps Porzingis is a one-time All-Star and is having the most efficient season of his career.

Yet teams still double Tatum.

Boston spent the entire first half against Brooklyn getting Thomas matched up with Tatum. They would screen until Tatum got a mismatch he wanted and then let him go to work. He put up 31 points.

But when the Nets switched up the defense to put more pressure on the Celtics star, Tatum relied on his team of Spider-Men to get the job done.

“That just goes to who he is,” Mazzulla said. “He wants to win more than anything else. That’s everything [he’s] about. That was his decision. And I think that’s part of his growth as a player.

“He understands that he has to be great for us every night, but it looks different every night. In the first half, it was like true individual greatness, and I thought the way he manipulated the defense in the second half is another sign of greatness.”

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn NetsPhoto by David L. Nemec/NBAE via Getty Images

Winning goes well beyond individual efforts, even when a guy has a chance to put up 60 points.

“His ability and character, to find different ways to be one of the best players on the floor, empower his teammates, and understand that, in order to get to where we want to get to, it needs to be a team, and he truly understands that,” Mazzulla said. “So, it’s just good to watch.”

Following their win over the Nets, the Celtics have a four-game cushion over any other team in the NBA and a six-game lead atop the East. They are on pace to notch their best regular season win percentage since the 2008 title year.

The Celtics are a team of All-Stars, all willing to put their individual greatness aside for the greater good of the pursuit of a championship. And Tatum is the head of the snake.

“It’s just all about playing in the flow,” Tatum said. “We got a really good team where, [on] any given possession, we could have two, three advantages. It’s not always just going to be me. So, just understanding that and knowing that I need my teammates. I need everybody. We all need each other. So, everybody, we got to share the love.”

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