BOSTON — As the Celtics have completely transformed their season over the past several weeks, there was one lingering doubt hanging over them: the lack of elite competition along the way.
That wasn’t the case Sunday afternoon, as the Brooklyn Nets rolled into TD Garden for this matinee affair with the Celtics featuring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving playing together for just the fourth time this season.
But while Durant was his typically great self, Jayson Tatum was even better.
The 24-year-old superstar poured in 54 points — his fourth 50-point regular-season game of his career, tying Larry Bird for the most in Celtics franchise history — to outduel Durant and Irving and lead Boston to a 126- 120 victory here Sunday, giving the Celtics their 14th win in their past 16 games and continuing their rapid ascent into an Eastern Conference contender.
« As a competitor night in, night out, but especially games like this, those matchups when you’re on one of the better teams in the league with two of the best guys, just as a competitor, these are the kinds of moments that as a kid, you dreamed about and looked forward to, » Tatum said after finishing with those 54 points — including 36 in the second half — on 16-for-30 shooting overall, 8-for-15 from 3-point range and 14-for-17 from the foul line, to go along with 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
« When those opportunities come, you try to make the most of it. »
Tatum certainly did that on Sunday, as he put together one of the best games of his career to lead Boston (39-27) past a Nets team that has now lost 17 of its past 20 games — but in only one of them, Sunday’s game, did Brooklyn have both Durant and Irving on the court.
Durant was his typically spectacular self, going for 37 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists and 2 blocks (though he did have 7 turnovers), while Irving had 19 points on 18 shots and was mercilessly booed whenever he touched the ball.
Tatum, meanwhile, nearly matched their scoring output by himself, and did so by scoring at every level — from the 3-point line, driving to the rim and getting to the foul line — in the kind of performance that showcased his ability to do everything at the offensive end.
« This man to the left was unstoppable, » said Jaylen Brown, who scored 21 points in 35 minutes himself in his first game back from a sprained right ankle he suffered in Tuesday’s win over Atlanta Hawks, while sitting next to Tatum during their postgame media session.
Part of the reason is that, as Boston has seen its level of play rise over the past few weeks, Tatum’s has, too. During Boston’s winning streak, Tatum’s assist total has gone up by more than one per game, and although he had only three Sunday, teammate Marcus Smart applauded Tatum for how his game has grown, and said he has noticed Tatum has been playing smarter in recent weeks — and that has translated to more team success.
« He stopped trying to force it and making the right read, making the game easy for himself, » Smart said. « Saving that energy and not trying to beat every double-team that comes his way and that’s allowing him to do what he does at the end of games. He has the legs late in those fourth quarters to take over the games and that’s what it’s all about.
« When you are a great player, that’s what it’s about, having those legs in crunch time to be able to do that. The way you do that is getting everyone else involved, picking your spots wisely. He’s doing a great job of that, him and Jaylen. They both are and that’s the reason why we are doing what we are doing. That’s good players that get us going on the offensive end, making sure we get great shots either for themselves or for their teammates. »
Before Sunday’s game, Celtics coach Ime Udoka stressed how difficult the challenge of stopping Brooklyn would be for his team. Boston entered Sunday with the NBA’s best defense on a per possession basis, before falling one-tenth of a point behind the Golden State Warriors once Sunday’s game was included, as the Celtics’ usual plan to push teams into isolation situations was going to be complicated due to the presence of two of the league’s best isolation scorers in Durant and Irving.
So, instead, the Celtics knew they would have to win this game with offense. And, thanks to Tatum’s sustained excellence from start to finish — he scored nine, 11, 16 and 18 in each of the four quarters — coupled with the rest of the Celtics shooting a combined 9-for-21 from 3-point range , Boston was able to do just that.
« Obviously, somebody like myself or [Jaylen] can have nights like this, » Tatum said. « And it’s contagious when guys are hitting shots, spreading the wealth and making the extra pass, driving and kicking.
« Just getting those open looks and seeing them go in, it just opens everything up for us. We know how tough we can be on defense. When we kind of match that energy on offense, we’ll really be special. »
Boston has had plenty of special moments over the past several weeks, as the Celtics have completely flipped the script on their season and stormed up the Eastern Conference standings, to the point where they are now firmly ensconced in fifth place, and are within 1½ games of the second-place Philadelphia 76ers.
Until this past week, however, Boston has largely done that on the backs of playing overmatched and/or injured opponents. This week, however, the Celtics have dispatched the Hawks (with Brown hardly playing after hurting his ankle in the game’s opening minutes), the Memphis Grizzlies (with Brown not playing at all) and then Durant and Irving on Sunday.
It’s hard to argue that any more, however. And, as Tatum showed Sunday, with the way the Celtics are playing, they — both individually and as a group — can go toe-to-toe with anyone and come out on top.
« This is the time you start to gear up, tighten up the details, start getting those clothes, getting ready for playoff basketball, » Brown said. « That’s what platform that we want to be on. So as the days go by, more and more of the focus, more and more of the intensity is important. So our group, it’s about us, just trying to get better each and every game.
« And that’s what we’ve been doing along the course of the season. It didn’t start off that way. It started off looking bad, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So I’m glad our guys stayed the course because I think we still have yet to reach our peak. »