This is the biggest challenge of Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s careers. Yes, this series. It wasn’t the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, not with the more experienced and savvy LeBron on the other side.
Not the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, when they were playing with a hobbled Gordon Hayward and a frazzled Kemba Walker.
Tatum and Brown are nearing the peak of their superpowers. They were each All-Stars last season and Tatum has ascended to a possible first-team All-NBA candidate while Brown’s game has expanded after dealing with early injuries this season.
The Brooklyn Nets will walk into TD Garden on Sunday brimming with confidence, fully believing they have the two best players in the series in Kevin Durant and former Celtic Kyrie Irving. But do they?
Are the 33-year-old Durant and 30-year-old Irving still better combined than the Celtics’ two cornerstones? That’s what this series may prove in the end, which team has the more talented and perhaps harmonious superstars.
Of course, this is not a two-on-two series. There will be several factors affecting how and why the Celtics could win the series. The Celtics are the higher seed but have more unproven players. Robert Williams, one of their best defenders, will likely miss the series barring a potential seventh game.
But the highest profiled players of this series, the ones whose rookie cards soar every year, are the quartet of high-scoring players.
Tatum is quietly determined to prove he’s the best player on the floor each night. He doesn’t talk much trash. He doesn’t call out his highly respected older brethren, such as Durant or Irving. But he intently wants to prove he’s amongst the NBA elite.
“Not trying to make it a one-on-one thing,” Tatum said. “Everybody knows who Kevin is and the things he’s accomplished and what he brings to this game. It’s a team sport and obviously he’s the focal point of their team. We have to compete and game plan to make it tough on him. It’s a tough task but I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun. The playoffs, it’s that time of the season. Myself and the rest of the guys, trying to carry the momentum to the postseason.”
The Celtics won the March 6 meeting, the only time this season where the teams had close to the rosters they will have Sunday, because Tatum outshone Durant by scoring 54 points. But Durant still scored 37 and remains the most effortless scorer of this generation.
“He’s been doing it for a long time,” Tatum said with true admiration. “It’s about how he reads the game. He’s been doing it for a long time. He’s capable and tall enough where he could shoot every time over double teams. From playing against him in the playoffs and Team USA, he was always willing to make the right play and somebody with that skill level and his height, presents a challenge. We all know that.”
The Celtics enter this series with payback on their minds. Brooklyn easily disposed of the battered Celtics last season. Brown missed the series with a wrist injury. Walker got hurt in Game 3 and missed the final two games. It was a bitter end to the Brad Stevens coaching era, a season that began with such promise ended so meekly.
“Last year we were banged up, JB was out and Kemba half the series,” Tatum said. “All those guys were healthy over there. It was just different. This year we’ve had a better season. We’ve got everybody but Rob. Much more full strength than last year. We feel a lot better about ourselves than we did last playoffs.”
Tatum is looking forward to the task of trying to unseat Durant and Irving. He and Brown are not shying away from the challenge.
“I’m more so excited for the opportunity and what I feel like we’re capable of doing. I’m not necessarily going into it trying to prove anything,” he said. “I know who they have on their team and who we got. I know how competitive it’s going to be and how much fun it’s going to be.”
Boston coach Ime Udoka was an assistant on Steve Nash’s staff last year in Brooklyn. He is a Coach of the Year candidate and this series could validate his status as one of the league’s rising coaching stars. But he doesn’t want Tatum and Brown to get caught up in the moment. He’s fully confident his two stars embrace this chance.
“I don’t think we get specific into the one-on-one battle with those guys it’s more so we understand what we need from those guys in a playoff series and we’ve addressed that early in the season,” he said. “Taking on the challenges on a night-to-night basis. Jayson always relishes that, Jaylen as well and when you have these two high-level scorers. For us we have to defend these guys as a team, individually as well and how we can hurt them on the other end and make them guard.
“And I think that’s the benefit of us having two guys that can get baskets on their own, putting pressure on their end but nothing is said individually about a specific matchup. That’s already known. Jayson is a high-level competitor and he takes pride in those matchups as you saw in the last time we played them.”
There has been no trash talk from the Boston side, no declarations or leaks of strategy. The Celtics are quietly confident they are ready for a team that has been tabbed as a title contender for two years now. Brown and Tatum comprehend the moment and are convinced they can deliver.
“It’s exciting, what more could you ask for?” Brown said. “Those are two of the best offensive players to touch a ball in NBA history if you ask certain people. It’s a great challenge that we’re looking forward to. That’s for sure. I’m excited. I’m ready to go.”