Sorry, Joel Embiid. Your time has passed, Kevin Durant. Win while you can, Jimmy Butler.
The Eastern Conference now belongs to two men, and while Sunday’s Game 7 means the end of an instant-classic series, it more significantly marks the beginning of a brilliant rivalry.
We’ve long recognized Giannis Antetokounmpo’s greatness. Two MVPs and a title speak for themselves. What’s now clear is that the player best equipped to dethrone him is Jayson Tatum, and no matter what happens on Sunday in the Garden, neither one of them is going anywhere.
What did they do during Friday night’s Game 6 was breathtaking. Antetokounmpo became the first player since Shaq in 2001 to put up a 40-point, 20-rebound game in the playoffs. Tatum matched him shot for shot with 46 points, including a scintillating 16 over the final nine minutes with the Bucks attempting to conjure another improbable fourth quarter comeback.
It’s only now dawning on us what this rivalry might become. Because Antetokounmpo’s Bucks play in a small market, and because Tatum’s Celtics underachieved for nearly two years until flipping the switch in January, anticipation for this series didn’t match the talents of the stars taking center stage.
As the regular season wound down, Celtics fans fixated on their blood feud with Kyrie Irving and the debate over avoiding his Nets. The games were close but never really in doubt after Tatum’s Game 1 buzzer beater, and the Celtics coasted to a sweep.
In retrospect, that series barely counted as playoff basketball, given Brooklyn’s inability to defend or make adjustments behind the bench, where Hall of Famer Steve Nash was coached into a pretzel by Celtics counterpart Ime Udoka.
The real series started last week, with Antetokounmpo dominating Game 1, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer stifling the Celtics offense, and the ensuing games unfolding as some kind of hybrid chess match and Fight Club.
It’s hard to remember the last time the Celtics boasted a conference rivalry like this, with two young stars in their primes. It might seriously be Russell vs. Chamberlain in the 1960s, because by the time Larry Bird came along, Dr. J’s Sixers were nearing their peak and a transition to Charles Barkley. Isaiah Thomas’s Bad Boy Pistons caught Bird on the way down, and Michael Jordan’s championship-caliber Bulls missed him pretty much entirely.
Similarly, Paul Pierce vs. LeBron James brought some unforgettable moments, including their dueling 40-point games in a 2008 Game 7 that immediately sprang to mind while watching Tatum and Antetokounmpo play can-you-top-this on Friday. But Pierce is seven years older than James, so theirs was doomed to be a brief clash of equals.
Tatum is only 24, however, and Giannis 27. They’re both indefatigable, Antetokounmpo absorbing particle accelerator levels of punishment and Tatum playing 40-plus minutes a night like he’s tossing a Frisbee. They’re both tough as nails, too, leading two of the best postseason defenses in basketball.
Their games are similar in some ways — both are long, strong, and deadly at the rim — but the differences just heighten the intrigue. Antetokounmpo gets downhill like Earl Campbell and leaves a similar trail of bodies, but he’s not much of a shooter beyond 15 feet. Tatum starts at the arc and works his way in, his side-step 3-pointers as deadly as his mid-range fallaways as deadly as his sweeping drives.
It’s a shame someone must lose, but whoever heads home for the summer should take solace in this: the end of their season might just be the start of a legendary rivalry.
If Tatum could learn anything from Antetokounmpo, it’s stoicism. Giannis instigates violent collisions on virtually every possession and has been whistled for a league-high 19 offensive fouls this postseason, and yet he rarely complains. Tatum, by comparison, barks at referees constantly and even more egregiously sometimes fails to hustle back on defense while play goes the other way.
But the fun of this rivalry will be watching them grow, whether it’s Antetokounmpo inevitably extending his range to the 3-point line or Tatum better controlling his emotions to match his otherwise unflappable demeanor. It would also be nice to see them guard each other more; Tatum checks Antetokounmpo more than vice versa.
Those minor quibbles aside, what they’ve done in this series is why we watch sports in the first place.
When the Bucks need a basket, they let Giannis clear a path. When the Celtics needed one on Friday, they let Tatum go to work. In one exquisite three-minute stretch to quell a furious fourth-quarter rally, Tatum beat the shot clock with a contested baseline jumper, beat it again with a step-back 3-pointer, stuck a Dirk Nowitzki-style one-legged fallaway, and drilled a 3-pointer over Pat Connaughton. The Bucks never got closer than four. It was a superstar’s awakening.
That performance came just one game after Antetokounmpo delivered similar heroics in Milwaukee’s Game 5 comeback for the ages, dropping eight of his game-high 40 down the stretch as the Bucks overcame a 14-point deficit.
The two should continue trading haymakers on Sunday, with the victor emerging as either the favorite to win it all, or too battered and bruised to outlast the rested and tested Heat, who know a thing or two about toughness themselves.
Then again, the outcome of Game 7 is almost incidental to the real story. It’s a shame someone must lose, but whoever heads home for the summer should take solace in this: the end of their season might just be the start of a legendary rivalry.