Jayson Tatum can be an MVP candidate soon: 7 takeaways from Celtics vs. Nets

Tatum poured in a season-high 54 points, leading the Celtics over the Nets.

Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics reacts after a three-point shot during a game against the Brooklyn Nets. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

As Jayson Tatum stepped to the line late in Sunday’s matinee game against the Nets, chants of “M-V-P” rained down from the rafters.

How can you argue with them? Tatum’s free throws were his 53rd and 54th points in the Celtics‘ 126-120 victory over a Nets team that was nearly whole — missing only Ben Simmons. Tatum rose to the occasion against Kevin Durant, who has arguably been the best player in the world for much longer than he gets credit. He beat double teams. He worked his way to the free-throw line 17 times. He buried eight of his 15 3-point attempts.

“Obviously, when you kind of get in that zone, the basket just seemed to be a little bit bigger,” Tatum said after the game.


Perhaps most importantly, when the Nets forced the ball out of his hands, he was a willing passer. The biggest shot of the game was Jaylen Brown’s back-breaking corner triple with 39 seconds remaining which was assisted by Marcus Smart, but the advantage was created when the Nets double-teamed Tatum.

“[Tatum] was unstoppable,” Brown said afterward. “I think that helps with your offense, right?”

When the Celtics struggled early in the year, Tatum’s struggles from 3-point range were one reason many optimists held out hope. After all, the reasoning went, Tatum shot 38 percent for his career and couldn’t possibly keep shooting this poorly.

Tatum kept shooting relatively poorly from deep, but he improved in other facets. He drove harder and with more confidence, passed better, and found other ways to score that turned him into a much more dangerous basketball player. Over the last 20 games, his 3-point shooting has inched ever so slightly upward to 36.6 percent. During that stretch, Tatum is averaging 29.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game.

Those are MVP numbers, and the Celtics are 16-4 during that stretch. Tatum won’t be named MVP this season, although an interesting case could be made for him. His uptick in productivity coincided perfectly with the Celtics’ turnaround — they are suddenly a contender, and he is their best player. How else would you define “valuable?”


Still, Tatum is at the head of an increasingly noisy group of newcomers who aren’t content to let the old guard rack up wins and awards. Ja Morant is part of it. Trae Young and Luka Doncic are too. But nobody can match Tatum’s experience and success from a young age nor his versatility and two-way dominance when he’s at his best.

Tatum is on his way. The “M-V-P” chants on Sunday may have been a little premature, but every indication is that they might only be off by a year or two.

More takeaways

2. Sunday felt like a playoff game, and playoff games are all about matchups. To that end:

  • Durant and Tatum can guard each other pretty well, but both teams easily freed their stars and created mismatches.
  • The Celtics can’t do much against LaMarcus Aldridge, who is absolutely enormous and deadly from mid-range (14 points, 7-for-10 shooting).
  • In a showdown between defensive-minded guards, Marcus Smart outplayed Bruce Brown on the offensive end, even though Brown scored a little more and was a little more efficient.
  • The Nets are not going to be able to hide Seth Curry on Jaylen Brown when Brown is fully recovered from an ankle injury.
  • Neither team has a particularly potent bench.

Before the game, Ime Udoka noted that the Celtics try to force isolations, but the Nets are a challenge because they have two players — Durant and Kyrie Irving — who are both perfectly happy to abuse mismatches.

“The aggressiveness wasn’t where we needed to be as far as pickup points and physicality on the switches, but it got better throughout the game,” Udoka said afterward. “They were making some tough shots, but we continued to grind away and those shots didn’t fall at the same level throughout the game. …

“Tonight was a game where they have two elite, isolation scorers and our offense had to be on point. I think winning the second, third, and fourth quarter showed the improvement offensively throughout the game.”


3. Al Horford finished 3-for-6 from 3-point range on Sunday, part of a quietly efficient 13-point outing. Horford is shooting 31.9 percent from behind the arc this year, but an impressive 41 percent on 4.1 attempts per game in his last 15 contests.

The biggest area Horford has struggled? From the top of the key, where he is 16-for-57 this year (28.1 percent). That’s a little unfortunate for the Celtics, since pick-and-pop 3-pointers would open things up a lot, but he’s a deadly 3-point shooter from the corner.

Horford’s improvements throughout the year have been impactful but a little unheralded, which is a microcosm of Horford’s career.

“I said it enough — we’re not going to keep missing these shots,” Udoka said. “But we did for a while. But Marcus, Al, and Jayson, those guys’ numbers are getting back to averages.”

4. The Celtics hung their hats on defense for several weeks, but Sunday’s game proved they also have the firepower to win a different sort of game: A shootout against an opposing superstar.

As a result, the noise around the Celtics continues to grow. Seth Partnow, a talented analyst-turned-NBA-staffer-turned-analyst, asked someone to talk him out of picking the Celtics to come out of the East. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor unequivocally declared them a contender.

“I can’t recall a team that went from so unwatchable to so great in a single season,” he noted.

Prior to ripping off three straight against the Hawks, Grizzlies, and Nets, talk of Celtics contention felt premature. Winning nine straight is undeniably impressive and indicative of a team that has gotten its act together, but with the exception of a game against the Sixers that was so dominant it felt like an outlier, the Celtics weren’t beating contenders.


Now, the win over the Sixers combined with their recent run is impossible to ignore.

“Playoff caliber team and really holding ourselves to a higher standard, but measuring ourselves against some of the better teams,” Udoka said. “So regardless of the opponent, we want to play a certain way regardless of who they have until they don’t. And that’s carried over well from the earlier streak and before All-Star break.”

5. Tatum and Brown did their postgame availability together. What that means isn’t exactly clear, but it’s uncommon in NBA circles for two players to do their press conference together, so it feels noteworthy here.

6. Did Tatum think about going back to Durham to catch Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game?

“I thought about it,” Tatum said. “It’s just kind of tough playing early. But definitely wish I could’ve been there for the last game. Unfortunately, we lost. Still an incredible run. 42 years, everything he’s accomplished at Cameron. Especially to see all the guys that came back, everybody that watched, and things like that.

“It’s a little bit better atmosphere than Cal for sure.”

Brown, who played his lone season in college at Cal, smirked.

“This guy.”

7. After a grueling stretch, the Celtics now have two days off. They take on the Hornets in Charlotte on Wednesday.


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