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Jason Kidd tries to pit Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum against each other

BOSTON – In the aftermath of a blowout loss in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd shifted the focus back to the Boston Celtics by reigniting a years-long debate surrounding star forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Tatum, 26, is Boston’s most decorated and most celebrated player: The five-time all-star was an NBA first-team selection the past three years and he finished sixth in this year’s MVP voting. But the 27-year-old Brown, a three-time all-star, has had arguably a more impressive postseason run, earning Eastern Conference finals MVP honors before scoring a team-high 22 points in Boston’s 107-89 runaway victory in the final on Thursday. opener.

While Tatum has consistently posted better stats in recent years, Brown’s more assertive style and vocal leadership have sparked debates on television, radio and social media about whether he is Boston’s true leader and top talent. Kidd jumped right into the conversation during Saturday’s practice ahead of Sunday’s Game 2, casting a contrarian vote for Brown at the expense of Tatum, who had 16 points (on 6-for-16 shooting), 11 rebounds and five assists during a relatively quiet match. Game 1.

“Well, Jaylen is their best player,” Kidd said. “Defensively, he picked off Luka (Doncic) full court. He reached the free throw line. He did everything, and that’s what your best player does. He plays both sides, defense and attack, at a high pace, and he has been doing that all through the play-offs.”

Kidd’s statement, which caught a roomful of reporters off guard, diverted attention from the Mavericks’ Game 1 battle and became the main talking point during the media availability in Boston. The Celtics’ chemistry was a major asset on both sides during Game 1, and Tatum painted Kidd’s praise of Brown as an attempt to disrupt their togetherness.

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have (Brown) on our team, and we can say that for a lot of guys,” Tatum said. “We have all played a role in getting to where we are today, and we understand that people are trying to drive a wedge between us. I think it’s a smart thing to do or try. We’ve been in this position for years of guys trying to divide us and say one of us should be traded or one of us is better than the other. It’s not our first time at the rodeo.”

Tatum and Brown, who were both selected No. 3 overall in the draft, have faced questions over their seven seasons together about whether they are an ideal combination. Their shortcomings in recent postseasons, including the 2022 Finals against the Golden State Warriors and the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, have also sparked trade rumors and speculation of a possible split.

This year, Boston was less reliant on Tatum after adding Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis in offseason trades. Tatum’s scoring, field goal attempts and usage rate dropped in 2023-24 as he gave up opportunities to Boston’s newcomers. Nevertheless, the Celtics won more games, registered a higher point differential and achieved better offensive efficiency than at any time during Tatum’s career.

Through this playoff run, Tatum has scored 25.3 points per game – his lowest postseason average since his sophomore season in 2018-19 – and is shooting just 29.9 percent on three-pointers, the worst mark of his postseason career. Still, Boston is 13-2 in the playoffs and three wins away from its first championship since 2008.

“We’ve been extremely focused on what our roles are and what our jobs are,” said Brown, who is averaging 24.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists during the playoffs. “We have all had to make sacrifices. Jayson has had to do that at the highest level, and I respect him and tip my hat to him. Right now it’s all it takes to win, and we can’t allow outside interpretations to try to come between us.”

Boston cruised past Dallas in Game 1 despite a subpar scoring game from Tatum, who didn’t attempt a shot in the first eight minutes, committed six turnovers and received significantly more defensive attention than Brown. During his post-game comments, Tatum said he had been “nervous in an anxious way, like a little kid,” about returning to the Finals after Boston fell short in 2023.

With Porzing back from a calf injury and an offensive system that consistently generates open three-pointers for a lineup full of quality perimeter shooters, the favored Celtics don’t need Tatum to match Doncic shot for shot to win this series. To his credit, Tatum has largely avoided his worst habits — stopping the ball and settling for tough two-pointers — while hitting the glass and playing energetic defense.

Dallas won Game 2 in the three previous series, including rebound wins after Game 1 losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. But the Mavericks will need more than Kidd’s mind games to tie the finals: their ball movement stalled badly in Game 1, leaving Doncic as the only reliable source of offense.

Kyrie Irving needs to be more composed than Thursday, when he scored 12 points on 19 shots, and Kidd said Doncic needs to better read Boston’s defense, which is designed to limit Dallas’ 3-point attempts and lob passes in the corner. edge.

“Boston is going to give the layup to Luka, so he has to take it,” Kidd said. “They’re not going to give him the lob, and they’re not going to give him the third corner either. So it’s two against two (in the paint), and we have to take advantage of that.”

As Doncic tries to find ways to unlock Boston’s defense, all eyes will be on how Tatum responds to Kidd’s tactics. The Celtics squandered a 2-1 lead in the 2022 series and fell behind 3-0 before losing the 2023 East finals, earning a reputation for mental fragility and ineffective late play.

After going an impressive 21-12 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes during the regular season, Boston is 4-0 in such games during the playoffs. And when the Mavericks appeared poised to erase the Celtics’ 29-point lead in Game 1, Brown went on a 14-0 run late in the third quarter, smothering any possibility of a collapse.

To fully bury their ghosts of recent years, the Celtics must continue to prove that they are older, wiser and more resistant to meltdown.

“As long as we focus on the truth, the things we talk about every day and the relationships we build with each other, they can look at it however they want,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said in response to Kidd’s comments. “What happens in our locker room, how we communicate with each other, how we build relationships with each other and how we treat each other on and off the floor is the most important thing.”