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Jayson Tatum erupts for 54 in star-studded matinee victory

The season-high helped Tatum out-duel former MVP Kevin Durant in a battle between Eastern Conference powers

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s game may have been a matinee, but the Boston faithful were treated to a stargazing show.

Going toe-to-toe were two of the NBA’s best offensive players in Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant. The Celtics 24-year-old star got the better of his adversary, scoring a season-high 54 points ahead of Durant’s hard-earned 37. The individual battle helped the C’s get the 126-120 victory in a thrilling, back-and-forth affair.

Tatum’s stat line was pretty insane: 54 points on 16-30 shooting, going 8-15 from deep and 14-17 from the charity stripe. Somehow, those career-high 17 attempts didn’t feel like enough, as plenty of no-calls left extra points on the table for JT.

Beyond the numbers is where Tatum really impressed. The degree of difficulty of some of his makes, along with the insanity of his footwork to get those shots off, stands out. The impressive ability to sync up his jab steps and step-backs with a raise into a shot has always been noteworthy. What we’re seeing from Tatum lately is an improved feel for how he’s guarded on the catch and his blossoming into one of the league’s elite scorers.

Take this play, for instance. Knowing how he’ll be flown at off the screen, Tatum gives no hesitation in jabbing baseline before hitting his patented step-back.

That level of forethought as a scorer is what has turned Tatum from All-Star into MVP level performer. Big wings like him can create space one-on-one with spins and tough moves, but to do so quickly off the catch helps the entire offense flow smoother: there are fewer opportunities for double teams or help once he shakes the initial defender.

Tatum was 7-12 from 3 early in the 3rd quarter after two makes in two minutes. The Nets got caught with their hands down and, after these two makes, it was apparent that today was going to be a nuclear type of effort from Boston’s best player:

While he only had three assists on the day, his consistency in making the right reads stands out as his game matures; his kick out of double teams enables other Celtics to let the ball keep moving and find an open teammate. The Celtics get a great deal of “one more” passes to wide-open 3-pointers. Consistently, it’s one of Tatum or Brown who attack the heart of the defense and cause it to collapse.

One kick out from there opens up those one-more passes, part of the reason the Celtics are top-ten in the NBA in percentage of their catch-and-shoot looks that are listed as unguarded:

Late when the Celtics needed buckets, Tatum wasn’t settling for tough jumpers. He used the fact he was en fuego early to his advantage, thriving off hesitation dribbles and changing speed to get harder shows when coming off a pick. Instead of raising for the jumper, he’d drive past the stiffer Brooklyn bigs and play balanced near the rim.

The result: layups and free throws.

Then there was the finisher, that one signature play to vault the Celtics ahead for good. A bit of a helter-skelter transition opportunity was somewhat settled when Tatum caught it on the right wing. Two defenders flew at him and, instead of kicking to find the open man, he used a slick crossover to break away and levitate towards the rim for the tough two:

Tatum may have scored 54, but he was far from a one-man show. A strong return to the lineup from Jaylen Brown (21 points, including 3-6 shooting from deep with the dagger in the final minute) helped propel the Celts to stay with the Nets while they absorbed Durant’s best shot early. Birthday boy Marcus Smart finished with 14 points and 9 assists, Al Horford was his usual dependable self as the unsung hero, and Robert Williams finished with 5 blocks.

The C’s are humming, and the cohesion on the defensive end has allowed them to take the next step as a team. Brooklyn put forth an incredible offensive performance. Durant had 37, Kyrie Irving finished with 19 and they shot 44% from 3 as a team. But the C’s made them take (and make) difficult shots. That wore the Nets down late, and Durant and Irving combined for 10 turnovers on the afternoon.

This Celtics team is pretty dang complete. Some glass-half-empty folks may see a herculean effort from Tatum as necessary to fend off the shorthanded Nets. Those optimists will see this performance for what it was: a brilliant showing from Boston’s superstar while everyone else perfectly and efficiently played their ideal roles.

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