Jayson Tatum, at least statistically, had one of his worst games this season in the Celtics' 119-116 win over the Bucks on Wednesday, and yet all the writing on the wall read the same thing: Tatum is going to haunt Milwaukee if they end up meeting in the playoffs.
This was, still is, and will remain the problem with trading for Damian Lillard. Sure, the offense got juiced, but the defense took a major hit with the loss of Jrue Holiday, who was truly the only defender Milwaukee had capable of dealing with a wing scorer the likes of Tatum.
If the Bucks see the Heat, they won't have an answer for Jimmy Butler. If the see the Sixers, they won't have an answer for Tyrese Maxey. Holiday was their one perimeter defender capable of impacting star scorers, and without him, Khris Middleton becomes the guy assigned to Tatum. And that just isn't going to work.
Coming off knee surgery this summer and at 32 years old, Middleton, as was plainly evident on Wednesday, just isn't fast enough or strong enough to keep Tatum from getting to the rim for either a layup or a foul.
If Tatum doesn't take Middleton one on one, all he has to do is put him in the screen action. Middleton isn't physical or fast enough at this point to adequately impact Tatum by chasing over the top (Holiday might still be the best ball screen navigator in the world, by the way) with Brook Lopez dropping, but also going under the screen is pointless with Lopez in a drop. It's a scrambling situation for a defender out of his depth, and this happens:
So what's the alternative? For Middleton to switch out on the big man and leave Lopez one on one against Tatum? They tried that, too:
There is just no answer for Tatum on this Bucks roster. Lillard obviously can't defend him. Forget about Pat Connaughton. Andre Jackson Jr. can defend at 6-foot-6, but you're going to go into a potential Eastern Conference finals with a rookie who's currently playing under 10 minutes per game matched up on Tatum?
Jae Crowder, if he's healthy (he's 33 years old and out for the next two months at least with an abdominal tear), could get the Tatum call. I wouldn't exactly call that a good option.
In the end, if styles makes fights, then matchups make the NBA playoffs. And with Holiday gone -- to say nothing of the fact that he's actually on the Celtics now -- Tatum is just a nightmare matchup for the Bucks. Sure, he had an off night on Wednesday. Hoping for that to happen multiple times in a seven-game series isn't a game plan. It's a death wish. Besides that, even with a mediocre Tatum, the Celtics were still routing the Bucks for most of the game.
You have to assume, or at least hope, that Lillard will shoot better than he has to start this season if/when the Bucks and Celtics meet in the playoffs, but regardless, the Tatum problem isn't going away. And if you are thinking the Bucks can make some kind of trade for a true wing defender, I ask you, with what? What they didn't trade for Holiday they just traded for Lillard. Alex Caruso isn't walking through that door.
So this is what the Bucks have in terms of Tatum defensive options, and suffice it to say, it doesn't look good.