Celtics insider: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown ascending to elite level

Jan 19, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) reacts after his three point basket against the Golden State Warriors in overtime at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 19, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) reacts after his three point basket against the Golden State Warriors in overtime at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

In the eyes of some, the NBA Finals run for last season’s Boston Celtics squad was a fluke. Or, a premature flash occurring ahead of schedule.

They defeated teams who were missing a star player or two. They were young and lucky, with their stars not ready for prime time. A litany of other reasons could be labeled to a team of overachievers and they’d fall back to Earth in 2022-23.

Bad news for the naysayers, as the Celtics have proven to be even better this season, learning lessons from their runner-up achievement last June. Thanks, in large part, to growth of its two stars.

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Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were expected to fine tune their game and be even better this season. A little improvement here and there was expected with another year of experience under their belts.

The dynamic duo has done that, and then some, growing into two of the more elite players in today’s NBA.

That begins with Tatum, who has developed into a bona fide MVP candidate. And his last two games are evidence in how he impacts the game in a variety of ways.

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Monday’s 130-118 victory over the Charlotte Hornets gave us the “score-at-will” Tatum. With Brown sidelined and teammates struggling, Tatum took over the game. He scored 51 points, doing so in efficient 40 minutes on 15-23 shooting and a solid 7-12 from three-point range.

In crossing that 50-point threshold, Tatum broke a tie with Larry Bird for number of 50-point regular season games for the franchise, doing it for the fifth time in his career.

Against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, Tatum suffered through a somewhat cold night from the field (9-27). However, he positively affected the game in other ways — despite some late turnovers — in helping the Celtics to a 121-118 overtime victory.

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A 12-12 night from the free throw line contributed to Tatum’s 34 points. It was in the margins, with 19 rebounds, six assists, and three steals, in which Tatum really helped this team thrive in picking up their eighth-straight win.

There was a stretch in the third and fourth quarters where this Boston team seemed to be destined to again come up short against the Warriors. Defense was fine but Golden State was hitting their shots and the Celtics were not, leading me to believe there was a mental hold Golden State had over this Boston team.

But Tatum had a lot to say about that down the stretch, as did a reinvigorated Brown, who found his offense just in time against the Warriors.

Boston Celtics: Brown’s contributions

Last season, despite the team’s overall success, Tatum and Brown were prone to lapses. Games where one thing wasn’t necessarily working, or they weren’t getting calls, begat bad play or forced offense. In turn, the Celtics struggled.

The case this season has been quite different.

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A deeper roster and better play from the bench have helped. So, too, has an ability from Tatum and Brown to not let early game struggles or bad calls lead to an even more disastrous game.

Brown was a prime example of this in the victory over Golden State.

Rust was expected as Brown missed the last week with adductor tightness. It showed early and throughout the first three quarters of the game, at least on the offensive end. On defense, he was his solid self but the shots just weren’t falling.

Instead of forcing the action, Brown rose above it. He found other ways to contribute and, in staying with the flow of the game, rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter and overtime. From the last nine minutes of regulation on, Brown scored 12 of his 16 points, including the game-tying three-pointer that sent the game into overtime.

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This is the type of growth expected from this duo this season. Overcoming the physical and mental obstacles that pop up from game-to-game is what can separate the great players from the elite ones. And for Tatum and Brown, they have proven this season they have taken that step, making the Celtics all the better.