Basketball, Columnists, Sports

The 2-3 Zone, featuring Jayson Tatum’s Rise

The “3”

Jayson Tatum’s beard finally connected. And he’s been unstoppable ever since. 

Photo evidence from a Boston Celtics game against the Phoenix Suns shows the Tatum’s beard finally became fully connected on Jan. 18 of this year. Many Celtics fans across Twitter had been waiting for that day, often claiming that Tatum’s game would hit another level once his growing beard became fully connected.

Their claims have seemingly been confirmed. From that day onward, the Celtics are 12-4 in the games that Tatum has played in. And Tatum has been a top-10 NBA player ever since that date. 

Tatum has been dominant as a scorer, a defensive brick wall and he’s doing it all with absurd efficiency. 

He’s even doing it on the biggest stages, coming up big in key moments for the Celtics. He scored 39 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on more than 60 percent shooting and embarrassed Kawhi Leonard in the fourth quarter and overtime. And just two games later, he outplayed both LeBron James and Anthony Davis in a narrow loss to the Western Conference’s top team, while also tying his career-high 41 points. 

If Tatum continues to play like this, the Celtics are surefire title contenders in the Eastern Conference.

A couple other league stars are enjoying the spotlight recently, though for very different reasons. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in an all-out petty contest. And I am loving it.

Antetokounmpo criticized Harden for being selfish with the ball during the All-Star draft. Then, in an interview with Rachel Nichols, Harden indirectly slighted Antetokounmpo with the statement: “I wish I could be seven feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all.”

The two were in the race for the Most Valuable Player Award last year, and this year it once again seems like Antetokounmpo will beat out Harden for the award. 

The rivalry between the two seems to run far deeper than just those few incidents, but there’s no denying that their mutual contempt is currently reaching new heights.

Regardless of who the better or more skilled player is though, this beef between star players is pure fun. The league is a far better place when this kind of battle is happening.

A team with about as much juice as those two players right now is the Oklahoma City Thunder.

I’ve previously given love to the clutch heroics of Chris Paul and the bench leadership of Dennis Schroder, but this whole team deserves a mountain of praise. 

Before the season started, the Thunder were rocked by roster turnover that saw both Paul George and Russell Westbrook leave town. With all that roster turnover in mind, many predicted that the Thunder would finish toward the bottom of the Western Conference.

But right now, head coach Billy Donovan has this team sitting at sixth in the conference with more wins through 60 games than they were supposed to have all year.

All of that is coming after a shaky start. Since Thanksgiving, the Thunder are 31-12, and only the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks have a better record in that time frame. 

The most impressive part of this team is their absolute dominance late in the game. The Thunder have a league best 2.5 plus-minus in the fourth quarter this season. Their trio of guards, including Paul, Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, all dominate in the clutch with extremely efficient scoring.

This team is a still-surging monster, and they should be a formidable first-round playoff opponent for any team they face.

The “2”

The team most worried about the Thunder’s continued dominance is probably the Utah Jazz. After a 19-2 stretch against a soft schedule, the Jazz have come back down to earth. Their identity has vanished. Their lineups are a mess. Mike Conley has fallen apart yet again.

However, the Jazz can pull it together before the Thunder and Dallas Mavericks push the Jazz down to seventh in the West.

Their lineup of Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert is one of the best offensive units in the league, and that lineup is also a defensive force to boot.

If the Jazz can figure out how to work in more Ingles and less Conley, they may find a recipe for success.

Finally, it’s time to talk about Daniel Theis, the most unheralded Celtic. The German big man has been one of the Celtics’ five most important players this season, but he gets little love outside of Boston.

He does all the little things: hitting threes, carving out space for the Celtics’ stars to work, while also passing at a respectable level. Most importantly, he’s played All-NBA level defense almost all year.

Even as the Celtics have spent the year without a more well-known or well-respected big, This has held his own on the defensive end. And his play has been key to the Celtics’ top-five defense.

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