SAN FRANCISCO — Boston Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown heard what they had to say.
Break the Tatum-Brown tandem, it doesn’t work.
“They can’t coexist,” ESPN NBA analyst and former Celtics player Kendrick Perkins said in January. An ESPN report in November quoted an unnamed league executive as saying: “I can’t believe the entire era hasn’t really worked out for them.”
It’s not just sports networks touting the demise of this partnership. “I think this is definitely the beginning of the end of the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown pairing,” said Jake Fischer of the Bleacher Report in December.
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After four nights of hugging each other on the court after a Game 7 win over Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, a smiling Tatum said to a smiling Brown: “They said we couldn’t play together,” the Celtics will be in Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Tatum and Brown put out that storyline.
“Honestly, I believe there are only two young, very competitive guys who really want to win at all costs,” Tatum explained why it worked. “So I think obviously this brings us closer because we’re just trying to figure it out. Not necessarily proving people wrong, but just proving that we can win and put ourselves in a position to do so.”
Not that these concerns are unfounded. The Celtics struggled earlier in the season, hovering around .500 for the first three months of the season, and an oft-mentioned 18-21 record on Jan. 6 put them at No. 11 in the East.
Brown missed 14 of Boston’s first 24 games while the Celtics had a new and first-time head coach in Ime Udoka.
“The narrative doesn’t say that,” Brown said, his response thoughtful. “They’ll just say you lost. Whatever the excuse is. … We’re trying to figure it out. We’re playing in a city that doesn’t have the patience for any excuse, so we didn’t make any.”
Credit to Tatum and Brown, who are not just players but people. They don’t allow team struggles to adversely affect their relationship or outside opinions to separate them.
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In separate news conferences on Wednesday, Brown and Tatum made similar statements of determination.
“There’s always been a belief between us and the team that we have the ability to solve this problem,” Tatum said.
“Even when it looks like things are going in a direction that no one wants to get in, I’ll always have a firm belief,” Brown said. “I’ll always have faith in this team, this organization, and myself that we’ll be fine.”
As the season progressed, the Celtics got fitter and fitter, and they began to master the offensive and defensive concepts Udoka had installed. They start winning games. A nine-game winning streak in February. Five times in a row starting in March. Six times in a row in late March. From January 29 to March 27, the Celtics went 22-3. Eleventh place became eighth, sixth became fourth. By the evening of March 27, the Celtics were tied for first place in the Eastern Conference, 47-28.
Tatum and Brown are at the heart of that transition. Tatum was named to the All-Star team and was named to the All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career. He averaged career highs in points (26.9) and rebounds (8) and 4.4 assists per game. Under the leadership of Udoka, Tatum’s playmaking ability has improved, and he is more willing to trust his own passing and teammates.
In the Miami series, Tatum won the first Larry Bird Trophy awarded to the best player in the Eastern Conference finals. In two Game 7s of the playoffs, he had 26 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks and a steal against Miami and 23 points, 8 against Milwaukee assists and 6 rebounds.
“A guy who’s been with us all season,” Udoka said. “A lot was asked to put on his shoulders and it was delivered.”
Brown is a solid scorer with the ability to put up a big stat. He scored at least 20 points in 14 of 18 playoff games, dropping 30 in Game 2 against Milwaukee and 40 in Game 3 against Miami. He’s shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from 3-point range.
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At times, Brown and Tatum have been sloppy in basketball, which upset Udoka. But the advantages of these two players far outweigh the disadvantages.
One thing to consider in all of this is that both players are still young. At some point, team directors have to move on from a roster that doesn’t work. But Boston still reached the conference finals in three of its first five seasons. They just didn’t show up in the finals. It’s too early to give up two 24- and 25-year-olds, though Golden State’s Klay Thompson said: “I think Brown, Tatum and (Marcus) Smart are already there. 10 years.”
Maybe a blockbuster trade involving Tatum or Brown would produce a player who also helped Boston reach the Finals. But it was satisfying for president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and Udoka to see it and make it to the Finals with Boston’s drafted players.
Brown’s turn for Boston was more pragmatic. He speculates that health and key industries are the reasons. “If you ask me, that’s what I believe,” he said. “But you ask people and they might say something different.”
Tatum was asked, and he gave a different answer.
“At that time, it was hard, but you had to get closer,” Tatum said.