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Can Jayson Tatum Ever Get on Kevin Durant's Level?

A Sherrod BlakelyContributor IApril 14, 2022

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

As the final horn sounded in the Boston Celtics' Game 5 loss to the Brooklyn Nets last year, Jayson Tatum found himself in an unfamiliar place: out of the playoffs.

It was the first time Tatum's postseason had ended after just one round. It came at the hands of the Nets' All-Star triumvirate of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

In the moments that followed, Tatum experienced a cacophony of emotions. They ranged from anger to disappointment to excitement for players such as Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams, who had showed tangible growth.

But more than anything, that loss planted a seed. Tatum, who has been smashing franchise records seemingly every year, found new motivation. A breakout season felt inevitable.

"When I started playing, it wasn't just to make the NBA," Tatum told reporters at the time. "It was to excel at the highest level, be considered one of the best, be a winner, be an MVP—all those types of things. That's what drives me."

Tatum's standard of excellence stands in stark contrast to naysayers who have questioned his leadership, his killer instinct, his vibe with Jaylen Brown. But in a season in which Tatum has answered those critics, there is still work to be done.

For all the subplots and storylines surrounding the second-seeded Celtics' matchup with the seventh-seeded Nets (how many times will we talk about Irving and the messy basketball divorce he had with Boston?), none are more pivotal to the series' outcome than the Tatum-Durant matchup.

For wings long on length with a penchant for scoring, the standard is Durant. And during his illustrious career, Durant has had similar desires to Tatum. For the most part, he has quenched them. In addition to being a 12-time All-Star, Durant is also a two-time NBA champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP.

In just his fifth season, Tatum has already been named an All-Star three times. He landed on the All-NBA third team in 2019-20.

This season, he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week three times in March, becoming just the second player after LeBron James to win the award that many times in a month. And by winning in back-to-back weeks, he became the first Celtic to achieve that milestone.

Tatum's resume isn't nearly as bountiful as Durant's, but the 24-year-old is well on his way. Among players to appear in as many fourth quarters as Tatum this season (67), the Chicago Bulls' DeMar DeRozan (8.4) is the only one who scored more than Tatum's 7.0 points per game. Durant averaged 6.5 points in 46 fourth quarters.

That is why their matchup will be key. Tatum's scoring is vital to Boston's success. But his playmaking has value as well, especially when he piles up assists. This season, the Celtics are 24-9 when Tatum has at least five dimes. That includes wins in 18 of the last 20 games in which he registered at least five assists. Like Tatum, Durant the playmaker has been good for winning. The Nets are 31-9 when Durant has at least five assists.

With the duo expected to be matched up for several possessions, whoever does a better job of balancing scoring with playmaking will emerge as the victor in the head-to-head battle and likely in the series as well.

And while no one questions Durant's ability to dominate, Tatum has shown he too can put up big numbers and be better than anyone else on the floor, Durant included.

Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Tatum scored 54 points against the Durant-led Nets in a 126-120 victory March 6. In last year's gentleman's sweep, the Celtics' lone victory came in Game 3 when Tatum scored 50 points.

The growth of Tatum's game this year not only propelled the Celtics into the top tier of the Eastern Conference, but it also elevated Tatum's status among the NBA's best.

No longer is the discussion about Tatum limited to wing players. He is in the conversation for the league MVP award and all but a lock to be named to the All-NBA first or second team.

Big games, especially against the best players, have brought out the best in Tatum.

In Boston's 48-point win at the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 15, Tatum had 28 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. Just as importantly, he clearly outplayed MVP front-runner Joel Embiid (19 points, nine rebounds, six assists).

On March 6, Tatum was at his best when the game was on the line, scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter.

To put it in perspective, the Nets' starting five combined for 21 points in the fourth.

"It shows his growth and confidence; confidence we have in him," head coach Ime Udoka said at the time when asked about Tatum's ability to more than hold his own against Durant.

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The performance provided an emphatic pushback against those who believe Tatum does not have the killer instinct to put away teams led by elite players such as Durant.

After spending his first three years primarily as a scorer, Tatum has become more of a playmaker. This season, it's been at the urging of Udoka (and a not-so-subtle nudge from teammate Marcus Smart).

In addition to averaging a career-high 26.9 points per game, Tatum also recorded personal bests of 4.4 assists and 8.0 rebounds.

Durant turned in yet another strong season on all fronts. In addition to averaging 29.9 points per game, he also tallied 7.4 rebounds and a career-high 6.4 assists.

Though Durant missed 27 games, he still plays at a tremendously high level. For Tatum, this series has the potential to lay the groundwork for his evolution into more than just a talented player.

Outplaying Durant could set up Tatum to take that next step from being a top-10 player to top-five.

But Durant is not going to give up the crown easily.

Even at 33 years old, Durant still can score on any defender. And while he won't get any votes for Defensive Player of the Year, Durant is a solid defender, which stands out on a team that has struggled on that end of the floor.

But this series will come down to which player makes the greater impact.

Will it be Durant's dominance or the next chapter in Tatum's takeover of the league?

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