Nets’ defense against Celtics’ Jayson Tatum may determine playoff series

Tatum vs. Brooklyn. The verdict of that case on the court could decide whether the Nets can win their first-round playoff series against the second-seeded Celtics.

The Nets’ Kyrie Irving is going to be booed by Celtics fans, beginning with his return to the TD Garden for Game 1 on Sunday, just as he does during every visit to Boston. Irving’s tenure with the Celtics ended poorly, in part because of a much-scrutinized relationship with 24-year-old Jayson Tatum, who succeeded Irving as the face of the franchise.

But Tatum, who enters the series against the seventh-seeded Nets knocking on the door of NBA stardom, said Wednesday he learned a lot from watching Irving, who was already at the level he was trying to reach.

How to work. To do. What not to do

“Yeah, it helped me a lot those first two years, just seeing a superstar,” Tatum said after practice. “I was able to watch it every day, see how she worked, work on her body and get ready for games and things like that, and I learned what to do. And learn some things not to do.

Kyrie Irving is averaging more than 27 points per game for the Nets this season.
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Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum is averaging 31 points per game since March 1 for the Celtics.
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He would be the first to tell me. He could learn from the encounters we had. And obviously we’ve talked, and there are some things that he probably told me that he wishes he could do, that he would have done differently. But I think that’s part of life. No one is perfect, and you just have to get over it as you get older.”

Tatum isn’t old, but he’s clearly learned.

If history is any indication, Irving will be showered with poison at the TD Garden (he had a bottle thrown at him during the playoffs last year). Irving stomped on the “Lucky the Leprechaun” logo at midcourt following the Nets’ win in Game 4 of their first-round playoff victory over the Celtics last year, and compared Boston fans with “a bride scorned” this season. But that’s all just narratives.

That won’t determine victory or loss for the Nets. But the defense could, specifically, the Nets’ ability to slow down Tatum. So far this season, it has been a disability.

Jayson Tatum Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving guards Jayson Tatum during Round 1 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
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Jayson Tatum Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum hug after the Nets beat the Celtics in the playoffs last year.
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Tatum has averaged 31.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists since March 1, shooting .526 percent overall and .431 from 3-point range.

So how exactly can the Nets slow him down?

The question surprised Kevin Durant, almost as if he had been asked what is really in Area 51, or in the briefcase from “Pulp Fiction”.

“Shit, that’s a tough question,” Durant said after an awkward pause. “He is one of those players where you have to play hard and see what happens. He is so talented, skilled and efficient at what he does.”

While Durant and Irving have combined for five 50-point games this season, none have come against Boston. But Tatum reached 50 against the Nets in the playoffs last year, then hung 54 in a Boston win on March 6, abusing them with the same play over and over again.

Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving, left, and Jayson Tatum, right, as Celtics teammates in 2018.
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“We can’t let Tatum get 50,” Bruce Brown said. “We have to be physical with him.”

Brown spent more time guarding Tatum than any other Net this season, allowing the Celtics star .571 on 47.8 partial possessions in three games.

Durant was next, using his length to hold Tatum to .333, and 1-for-7 from deep, on 45.7 possessions. And Kessler Edwards can be expected to get his chances off the bench.

“I’m aware of the last time we played them, obviously, and it’s not something that comes out and [say] I’m going to score 50 today. It’s just the flow of the game,” said Tatum, who abused the Nets in transition on March 6. “When you get going, the game just opens up. … I’ve been to that area a handful of times. When it happens, it happens, but it’s not something I plan for.”

But the Nets have to plan for him. Tatum led Boston to a 3-1 regular season record against the Nets, averaging 29.5 points thanks to the pace and gravity he created for his teammates.

“It starts with JT slowing down. He has a great feeling playing against us and everyone else around him is very complementary. [when] JT is doubling down,” Irving said. “I know that team very well and they know us very well. It will be a round trip, and once you throw the ball in the air, you will see a spectacular basketball. I’m looking forward to it.”

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