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Kidd tries to create distraction; Celtics simply focused on ‘best' team

Kidd tries to create distraction; Celtics simply focused on ‘best' team originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd elected to spice up an otherwise sleepy Saturday off-day media session by twice suggesting that Jaylen Brown is the best player on the Boston Celtics' roster.

While undeniably a compliment for Brown, who was a two-way force in Boston’s lopsided Game 1 triumph on Thursday, the suggestion casts some obvious shade in the direction of Jayson Tatum.

If the goal was to simply distract everyone from the woes of his Mavericks and the uphill climb the team faces after how Game 1 played out, then we kind of understand Kidd’s attempt to stir up some drama.

But to purposely provide fuel to an All-NBA first-teamer like Tatum seems like a risky dice roll at best. To quote the fictional Pepper Brooks: It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ‘em.

The Celtics, in their turns at the podium on Saturday, were asked to respond to Kidd’s declaration. Tatum accelerated past the query like it was Luka Doncic trying to defend him on the perimeter.

"No reaction,” said Tatum. "This is a team sport, right? We understand that. We wouldn't be here if we didn't have JB on our team, and we can say that for a lot of guys, right? We have all played a part in getting to where we're at, and we understand that people try to drive a wedge between us.

"I guess it's a smart thing to do -- or try to do. We've been in this position for years of guys trying to divide us and say that one of us should be traded or one is better than the other. So it's not our first time at the rodeo.”

Brown arrived at the podium before Tatum and likewise Euro-stepped his way around what Al Horford would suggest was a sneaky attempt to drum up chatter.

“No reaction,” said Brown. Pressed on Kidd’s potential motivation, Brown added, "I don't know. It's a team game. We're trying to focus on that. Everybody has their own opinions.”

The Celtics are in the position they are in because of the abundance of talent on their roster. Both Tatum and Brown were willing to sacrifice their counting stats after adding Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday this offseason, but embraced it with a clear goal of obtaining an elusive title.

Now, three wins away from securing the franchise’s 18th banner, the Jays have to deal with questions about a hierarchy that this team has repeatedly suggested doesn’t matter.

If Kidd doesn’t view Tatum as one of the best players in the league, then his team sent a curious amount of attention his way throughout Game 1. Yes, Tatum struggled with ball security but, more often than not, he made the right decision, particularly in passing out when drawing multiple defenders.

This postseason, Tatum is averaging 10.1 potential assists per game. That number spiked to a game-high 14 potential assists in Game 1 against the Mavericks. Boston generated only five assists for 13 points off those Tatum feeds but the high number of potential helpers shows how often the attention he drew led to immediate looks for teammates.

Tatum was also a menace on the defensive end, using his combination of size and length to keep Dallas’ rim-running bigs from having any impact around the basket, as reflected in Doncic finishing with an impossibly low one assist for the game.

Scrutiny is nothing new for Tatum this postseason. He entered the Finals leading the Celtics in points, rebounds, and assists for the playoffs, but you’d never know it from all the chatter about how it’s been a quiet postseason for him.

Tatum chuckled before Game 1 when told he was probably the most scrutinized player in the NBA. In his unruffled way, Tatum continues to say all the right things, while suggesting that he’ll happily take on all that criticism if the season ends with Boston raising the trophy that will only validate how impactful he’s been.

So Tatum wouldn't take the bait from Kidd on Saturday. And he explained how he and Brown continue to handle all the outside noise that forever tries to drive them apart (but probably only brings them closer together).

“We've had conversations about it before,” said Tatum. "In all reality, we've just had to deal with it for a very long time. I think it's part of us maturing as men, right? Very, very young coming into this league, and just had to deal with all the ups and downs of, essentially, the success that we've had.

"There's been positive things and there's been negative things that come with that. We are not the first duo to go through that process, and we won't be the last. So understanding that side of it, and just keeping the main thing the main thing, and focusing on the job that we have in front of us.”

Kidd is a master at diversions. He can accidentally spill a cup of water to create a stoppage in play and no one is any wiser. Or maybe Saturday’s Tatum/Brown ploy was a little too obvious, yet again.

Such are the Hail Marys you have to throw when there appears to be an obvious talent discrepancy between Finals combatants. Lots of teams have tried to junk it up against the Celtics. And they’ve been on vacation for a while now.

It’s tough to rattle Tatum, particularly given his easygoing approach. There is always a chance that, motivated by Kidd’s suggestion, he comes out overaggressive in Game 2 and loses track of his typical “make the right play” approach.

But the best players in NBA history always seem to find motivation in even the tiniest of slights. Kidd might have poked a bear when Tatum was already aware that he could be even more efficient than he was in Game 1.

The, ahem, best problem for the Celtics is that the discussion about their “best” player isn’t necessarily an obvious answer. Brown has been fantastic throughout this playoff run (and really the totality of the 2023-24 season), operating with high efficiency on the offensive end, and taking on every challenge possible on the defensive side. Tatum’s output hasn’t necessarily been as loud as previous seasons, scoring wise. But his overall impact has been undeniable.

Then the Celtics can sprinkle in a little Kristaps Porzingis, who was dominant in his first game back after a near-40-day layoff. Jrue Holiday, already a champion in this league, provides stellar defense and knows how to settle a team when things get a bit rocky (like they did in the third quarter of Game 1). Derrick White just makes all the right plays.

The Celtics are three wins away from a title. Things are not going to come as easy as they did at times in Game 1. The Celtics need to be ready to lean into all their talent to differentiate themselves from the Mavs this series.

But three more wins will confirm one thing: The Celtics are undeniably the best team in the NBA this year. And it won’t matter who anyone thinks is the best player on Boston’s roster. This team will achieve the goal that brings validation to the entire group.