I think how you earn the respect of people that you look up to is you've got to compete against them. You got to go at them for them to give you that respect that you looking for.”
That was Jayson Tatum back in October, still basking in the glow of his gold-medal summer, reflecting on what it was like to hear Kevin Durant repeatedly sing his praises.
Durant repeatedly gushed about Tatum in the aftermath of the Celtics-Nets playoff series, the one in which Tatum produced a 50-point night in Boston’s only postseason win. Durant joked how he hated that the two players were in the same conference and punctuated his praise by noting, “[Tatum is] that elite level of a player already at 23 and I can see where this is going. It was an honor to play against him.”
Later in the summer, Durant openly wondered when Tatum might pass him as Team USA’s all-time leading scorer given his youth. In the aftermath of the Tokyo experience, Tatum wore the Durant praise with almost as much pride as the gold medal.
Tomase: Tatum looking more and more like a future Celtic all-time great
Yes, Kyrie Irving is back in Boston and that will steal many of the headlines when the Nets visit TD Garden on Sunday. The Celtics haven’t seen the part-time playing Irving since last year’s playoffs when he was stomping on the Lucky logo during Brooklyn’s gentleman’s sweep.
But the feature attraction should be the Tatum-Durant matchup. Durant returned from a 21-game absence on Thursday night against the Heat and showed little rust by putting up 31 points. Tatum is coming off a spellbinding week in which he seemingly went up a level while competing against fellow young stars in Trae Young and Ja Morant.
Tatum reacts to his epic matchup vs. Morant in Celtics' big win
Sunday is an opportunity for Tatum to assert himself as one the NBA’s elite while going against one of his veteran idols.
“It means a lot [to hear Durant’s praise]. I mean he's definitely somebody I looked up to growing up,” said Tatum. “Getting to have that matchup with him during the playoffs and then being his teammate and having conversation with him overseas, is something I will always remember.”
What is one thing Tatum might try to steal from Durant’s toolbox?
“He's so gifted but I think how fast he moves. Like when he catches the ball, it's really no wasted dribbles, no wasted motions,” said Tatum. "He gets to a spot and he’s nearly 7-feet tall, he can shoot over anybody. And just how quick he makes his decision and moves is something I really noticed.”
In typical Tatum fashion, Boston’s All-Star forward has shifted into another gear in the second half of the season. Playing without Brown this week, he’s been forced to shoulder more of an offensive burden but has carved up opponents with both his aggressive drives at the basket and with his blossoming playmaking skills.
But a matchup with Durant is a lot different than going up against a couple of high-scoring point guards. Tatum is going to be challenged at both ends of the floor. And, while the Nets have tumbled down the East standings without Durant, Sunday’s game still feels like as much of a measuring-stick game for Boston as they’ve played lately (even if Boston is 9-0 in their last nine games against playoff-picture teams).
Sunday’s showdown is another chance for Tatum to show he’s in the conversation with one the NBA’s elite in Durant. It’s another chance for the Celtics to show they are a legitimate contender in a crowded Eastern Conference.
It’s another chance for Tatum and the Celtics to earn the respect they so clearly covet.