When the Brooklyn Nets needed a basket against the Boston Celtics, they did what any NBA team in their position would have done: They got the ball to Kevin Durant and got out of his way.
His teammates might as well have been standing in Fenway Park by the time Durant isolated his defender, plowed toward the basket, hit the brakes and fired a fadeaway jumper from high over his head. Never in the history of mankind has someone of Durant’s size moved so gracefully in this situation. And never has there been anyone harder to stop. NBA defenses have seen this exact sequence enough times to picture it ending with a swish.
Not this time. Durant has taken thousands of basketball’s most indefensible shot in his career, but what happened on this one was highly unusual: It got blocked.
That was in Game 1 of the playoff series between the Nets and Celtics. Then it happened again in Game 2. The same person was responsible for both improbable rejections.
LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo have blocked his jumper before, but nobody has stuffed Durant in the playoffs more than Jayson Tatum.
Durant getting denied by anyone is an incredibly rare sight. In fact, the freakish athletes and shutdown defenders who get the Durant assignment have managed to block only 2% of his jumpers, according to Stats LLC research. To put it another way, he’s taken 16,269 jump shots, and they’ve gotten their hands on 354, fewer than Durant’s career fouls. It turns out blocking the shot of a 7-footer who releases the ball several feet higher is so ridiculously hard that NBA players have more success getting run over by him.
And yet Tatum makes it look easy. His two blocks on Durant gave him a total of six for his career—and every single one has been in the playoffs.
The best first-round series of the NBA playoffs doesn’t get much more symbolic than Tatum swatting Durant’s shots. The Celtics have seized a 2-0 lead on the Nets, with Game 3 on Saturday night in Brooklyn, in large part because the league’s No. 1 defense has stuck to Durant like sunscreen. There always seems to be someone between him and daylight.
One of the players in Boston’s tangle of limbs surrounding Durant when he touches the ball is often Tatum. He’s not the best defender on a team with Marcus Smart, the league’s defensive player of the year, but Tatum’s height, length and instincts make him an expert at bothering Durant, who is suffering through a miserable series while guarded by Tatum. He shot 11-for-28 over the other Celtics, but tracking data shows that Tatum limited Durant to eight points, seven turnovers, zero assists and 2-of-13 shooting—including those spectacular blocks.
There are 15 players in NBA history who have swatted Durant’s jumpers at least five times. It’s an exclusive list of stars like James, Leonard, Antetokounmpo, Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Dwight Howard, defensive specialists like Marc Gasol and Tony Allen and Durant scholars like PJ Tucker, who shadowed him to the point of stalking in last year’s playoffs. His behavior might have been illegal if it weren’t on a basketball court.
The only player who has felt the satisfaction of rejecting him more than Tucker is Shawn Marion. They played 33 games against each other, and Marion had 11 blocks on Durant. Tatum is halfway to his record after only 14 matchups.
One rule of the NBA is that anyone who believes they know how to bug Durant is probably going to be very wrong very quickly. Tatum isn’t a Durant stopper. Nobody is. He won’t even take credit for the times he has stopped him.
“Maybe I’m getting lucky with a couple of those blocks,” he said.
Or maybe he’s not.
Write to Ben Cohen at email@example.com
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Appeared in the April 23, 2022, print edition as ‘Tatum Is Blocking Durant’s Shot at Glory.’