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

Tatum vs. Brooklyn. The verdict of that on-court case may 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 vociferously by Celtics fans, beginning with his return to TD Garden for Game 1 on Sunday, just as he is during every visit to Boston. Irving’s tenure with the Celtics ended poorly, partly because of a much-scrutinized relationship with Jayson Tatum, 24, who has succeeded Irving as the face of the franchise.

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

How to work. What to do. What not to.

“Yeah, he helped me out a lot those first two years, just watching a superstar,” Tatum said after practice. “I got to see him every day, see how he worked, worked on his body and prepare for games and things like that, and learn what to do. And learn some things what not to do.

Kyrie Irving is averaging more than 27 points per game for the Nets this season.
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Jason Tatum
Jayson Tatum is averaging 31 points per game since March 1 for the Celtics.
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“He’d be the first to tell me that. I could just learn from the encounters that we had. And obviously we’ve talked, and there’s some things that he probably told me wish he could do, would’ve done differently. But I think that’s just part of life. Nobody’s perfect, and you’ve just got to move on from it as you get older.”

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

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

That isn’t going to determine victory or defeat for the Nets. But defense might — specifically, the Nets’ ability to slow Tatum. So far this season, it has been an inability.

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 embrace after the Nets beat the Celtics in last year’s playoffs.
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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 exactly how can the Nets slow him down?

The question stunned Kevin Durant, almost as if he’d been asked what’s really in Area 51, or the “Pulp Fiction” briefcase.

“S–t, that’s a tough question,” Durant said after a pregnant pause. “He’s one of those players where you’ve just got to play hard and see what happens. He’s just so talented, skilled and efficient with what he does.”

While Durant and Irving have combined for five games of 50 or more points this season, none were against Boston. But Tatum reached 50 against the Nets in the playoffs last year, then hung 54 on them in a Boston victory on March 6, abusing them with the same play over and over.

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, and allowed .571 shooting by the Celtics star in 47.8 partial possessions through three games.

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

“I’m aware of obviously the last time we played them, and it’s not something I go out and [say] I’m gonna 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 in that zone a handful of times. When it happens, it happens, but it’s not something I plan for.”

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

“Starts with slowing JT down. He has a great feel playing against us and everyone else around is very complementary [when] JT is getting doubled,” Irving said. “I know that team very well and they know us very well. It’ll be a back-and-forth, and once you throw that ball in the air, you’re going to see some spectacular basketball. I’m looking forward to it.”

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