Celtics

Has Jayson Tatum met his toughest playoff test yet in Jimmy Butler?

Celtics
Jayson Tatum Jimmy Butler

Jayson Tatum has already outdueled two of the best players on the planet this postseason, seemingly proving he's superstar material while helping the Boston Celtics reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

But Jimmy Butler offered a very loud reminder Tuesday night that Tatum still has more to prove.

The Heat star delivered a masterpiece in Game 1 at FTX Arena, posting a monster stat line -- 41 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks -- to will Miami to a 118-107 victory over the Celtics in Game 1.

Forsberg: How will Celtics respond after embarrassing Game 1 stretch?

Butler dominated on both ends of the floor, and often at Tatum's expense. He picked off two Tatum passes on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter amid a 22-2 Heat run that demoralized the Celtics and essentially decided the game.

While Tatum finished with 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists, he also committed a game-high seven turnovers. After going toe-to-toe with two generational talents in Brooklyn's Kevin Durant and Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tatum didn't seem prepared for the intensity of Butler, who played with the edge of a player who heard the chatter about Tatum being the so-called best player in this series.

Butler may not possess Durant's offensive skill or Antetokounmpo's freakish athleticism, but he's a relentless competitor who comes up big in big moments.

 

"I want to run into people and see who falls down first, who is going to quit first," Butler said after the game. "I think that's the style of basketball I like to play."

Celtics Talk: Was Jimmy Butler motivated to prove he's the best player in Game 1 vs Jayson Tatum, Celtics? | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Butler's style of play isn't pretty, which is why he often gets overlooked in discussions of the NBA's elites. But the numbers are hard to ignore: Butler is the only player left in the postseason averaging at least 25 points per game on at least 50 percent shooting (29.8 points, 53.5 percent) and leads all players in the postseason with 2.3 steals per game.

"If you're driven by competition, and the stakes get raised, you're going to raise your level of play," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler after Game 1. "This level is high-level, this competition, and he senses it, and he knows it. He feels it."

Tatum gave us a glimpse of that high-level play against the Bucks, dropping 46 points on the road in a must-win Game 6 to help save the Celtics' season. He's averaging 28.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists this postseason and deserves to be mentioned among the NBA's best players.

Butler does as well, however, and if Tatum wants to reach his first NBA Finals, he'll need to get past a player whose legendary intensity and prowess on both ends of the floor may present an even tougher challenge for the 24-year-old than trading buckets with Durant or Antetokounmpo.

Butler landed a huge first punch Tuesday night, and it's up to Tatum to swing back Thursday night in Game 2.