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.