BOSTON -- There is a connection that Jayson Tatum feels towards Kyrie Irving that goes deeper than their one-and-done stints at Duke University.
And if you listen to Irving, the feeling is mutual.
Tatum is young enough to remember Irving’s first few years in the NBA and how he quickly went from being an on-the-rise talent to becoming one of the NBA’s best players.
It is a path that the 21-year-old Tatum has never been coy about wanting to someday blaze for himself, a path that he knows becomes a bit more complicated because of Irving’s presence.
Tatum will be the first to tell you that the lessons he has learned both on and off the floor while being a teammate of Irving’s have been instrumental in his development.
Inside the Celtics locker room, you won’t find a stronger advocate for Irving’s leadership of this team, than Tatum.
And yet Tatum knows as much as having Irving around has benefited him, it has also made his basketball trajectory a bit more challenging particularly when it comes to picking up where he left off during the playoffs a year ago, which is when he emerged as a potential star on this team and in the NBA while Irving was out due to injury.
Well, whatever learning curve Tatum had to deal with, it has not been an issue in this first postseason for him with a healthy Irving available.
For all the positive developments the Boston Celtics can take away from their four-game sweep of the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, the evolution of the Tatum-Irving tandem down the stretch has been one of the more significant ones.
“It’s been a good challenge,” Tatum told NBC Sports Boston when asked about blending his talents and strengths with those of Irving. “Obviously, he’s one of the best players in the league and I’m trying to get there one day. So, just being out there and obviously, playing within the system and making plays … and for me trying to keep up with him, keep my level of play up. I know he’s going to bring it night-in and night-out so I want to be there, right with him.”
So far in the playoffs, Tatum has indeed found the secret sauce to be an impact performer for the Celtics along with Irving.
Irving is the team’s top playoff scorer at 22.3 points per game, while Tatum is not too far behind as Boston’s No. 2 with a 19.3 points per game average.
Irving is racking up a team-best 7.8 assists per game while Tatum is snatching 5.5 rebounds per game along with shooting better than 50 percent from both the field (52.9 percent) and 3-point range (53.3 percent).
But more than the stats, both have shown the ability to work in concert with one another in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line.
Although Tatum was Boston’s No. 2 scorer in the regular season, often he was on the bench down the stretch in the fourth quarter. And when he was on the floor in the fourth, he didn’t really score much, which is evident when you consider he was the No. 2 scorer on the team overall but was just fourth on the team in fourth-quarter scoring during the regular season.
The playoffs have brought out a more aggressive Tatum, something he attributes in part to the advice and tutelage he has received from Irving.
Just as importantly, Tatum believes he has gained greater trust from the coaches to have him on the floor in those end-of-game, crunch-time moments.
In Boston’s 99-91 Game 2 win over the Pacers, Tatum finished with 26 points, which included him scoring or assisting on eight of Boston’s last 10 points as part of a 10-0 run to close out the victory.
But his late-game dominance was also buoyed by a strong fourth quarter from Irving, who had a game-high 37 points, nine of which came in the fourth.
After four playoff games, Tatum is averaging a team-best 8.0 points scored in the fourth, followed by Irving (6.0), Gordon Hayward (5.3) and Al Horford (4.0).
Flashback to the regular season and you’ll see Irving (6.4) at the top of that list followed by Jaylen Brown (4.0), Marcus Morris (3.7) and Tatum (3.6).
Being more of a go-to guy in the fourth has been a definite confidence booster for Tatum.
“It’s big because now, it shows that I have earned that trust,” Tatum said. “It’s so crucial this time of year; those late possessions really matter.”
The same can be said for his strengthening relationship with Irving who has made his feelings towards Tatum known from Day One.
During the Knuckleheads podcast co-hosted by former NBA players Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles, Irving did not hold back in his adulation for Tatum.
“We’re six years apart,” Irving said. “And I try to tell him, I’m like, look: ‘I’m a liaison between all of this … Whatever you need me to do. I’ll get out of your way once you get to that point (of greatness). You go ahead. This is yours. You want it? Go take it.’ And I tell J (Tatum) as well: “Me and you in this, going for the guts and glory. When it’s all on the line? I know I need you right next to me. So let’s get this thing going.’"
Irving added, “I have a different relationship with all of my teammates but specifically with him, how special he is.”
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