Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been spectacular for much of the 2020-21 season and positioned themselves to be named All-Stars when reserves are announced on Tuesday night.
But with the spoils of success comes the pressure of responsibility. And as the Boston Celtics look to pull the emergency lever on their roller coaster season, it falls back heaviest on Brown and Tatum to get this team on a steadier track.
To be sure, there is plenty of blame to go around for a Celtics team hasn’t won consecutive games in a month. Ever since toppling the Cavaliers and Bulls on January 24-25, the Celtics are 5-9 with a minus-1.5 net rating that ranks 19th in the NBA over that period. The only teams in the East with a worse record over that span were the Pistons (4-9, but one win over Boston) and the Cavaliers (2-12).
Danny Ainge needs to prune this roster and infuse rotation-caliber talent with the team’s collection of valuable trade exceptions. Brad Stevens needs to take the results of his early season data collection and lock in on the players that can consistently help this team most. (More minutes for Time Lord, please).
Kemba Walker needs to play with more consistency. Marcus Smart needs to get healthy. And Boston’s young players like Rob Williams, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard have to continue to play with energy that this team so desperately needs.
But, more than anything, these Celtics need Tatum and Brown to be great, particularly in the fourth quarter when Boston’s games inevitably hang in the balance.
Over the past month, the Celtics have played 10 crunch-time games. They are 2-8 in those contests. Tatum has been on the floor for 35 total minutes when the score is within five points in the final five minutes. How many assists does he have in that span?
In fact, the Celtics as a whole have more total turnovers (nine) than assists (eight) in 36 total crunch-time minutes in that month-long span. Brown only has two assists in that span. Boston has been outscored by 33 points overall in those 10 crunch-time games. Too often, the Celtics' offense deteriorates to isolation ball. Worse yet, bad offense has led to bad defense on the other end.
Tatum and Brown are drawing a lot of attention late in games. Teammates haven’t always helped them out by missing open shots (Walker, in particular, had some good looks Sunday in New Orleans.) But it’s all about making the right decisions on both ends of the floor. That hasn’t happened consistently enough.
Brown and Tatum have to make defenses pay when they overcommit. Just like the Pelicans did when both Brown and Tatum got a little too ambitious trying to deter a Zion Williamson drive in a key spot in overtime Sunday. Brown left Brandon Ingram open for what was essentially the game-winning 3-pointer.
To be sure, Tatum made a couple of huge shots in the final seconds of regulation to get the game to overtime. But it’s on Tatum and Brown to get more consistency out of a team that has been dreadful on both ends of the court in the fourth quarter this season.
It’s absolutely fair to look at the Celtics and suggest that it’s asking a lot of a 24- and 22-year-old to be bona fide closers. It usually takes time for players to grow consistent in that role. But Tatum and Brown were playing in big games as teenagers and don’t lack for experience. Brown has already played 61 career postseason games, including four winner-take-all Game 7s over the past four seasons.
The next step for these two in carrying the superstar label is being able to carry the team in high-pressure situations. If Williamson and Ingram -- with zero career playoff games -- can will their team throughout crunch time, then Brown and Tatum should be able to do the same.
It’s more than just hitting big shots. It’s making the right play, getting others easy looks, and bringing an unrelenting focus on the defensive end. No one is going to be perfect in those moments but the Celtics shouldn’t be 2-10 in their last 12 crunch-time games with two guys like Tatum and Brown on the floor.
Everyone needs to be better for the Celtics. But it all starts with the superstars.