BOSTON — While TD Garden lost its collective mind as his 3-pointer splashed through the twine, Jayson Tatum stared deep into a courtside TV camera and confidently skipped his way back towards midcourt.
Jaylen Brown, who had lit the crowd’s fuse a possession earlier with a rim-rocking dunk, rushed over for an emphatic back bump to celebrate his team’s lopsided lead over the visiting Denver Nuggets.
In a way, it felt like the 2018 playoffs again. Tatum and Brown spearheading the Boston Celtics' offensive attack. The Jays. Ying and yang. Fire and ice. Peaches and Herb (you know, because they’re reunited and it feels so good).
OK, so Tatum and Brown were never really separated. But the construction of last year’s team didn’t quite allow their talents to ever be on full display. And neither player really put his best foot forward, either, given the conditions.
But Boston’s offseason roster overhaul, and the lessons learned last season, have provided Tatum and Brown a new opportunity to showcase their talents. They’ve both responded by playing at an All-Star-caliber level while stating a strong case as the best young duo in the NBA.
Tatum and Brown partnered up for 47 points on Friday night, helping Boston to a 108-95 triumph over a Nuggets team that has lingered near the top of the west for much of the first quarter of the season. Tatum and Brown combined for seven 3-pointers against the NBA’s top-ranked defense — two more than the Nuggets made as a team — and helped Boston really tear the game open in the second half.
This is what Celtics brass hoped was possible entering the season. In the aftermath of signing Kemba Walker this summer, it was fair to wonder if the team might be overstocked with perimeter players and, at that point, Brown’s future was a bit uncertain (before the extension he would eventually ink). The possibility of moving a wing player didn’t seem farfetched.
But the message from those inside Boston’s front office was consistent. The team wanted to see how Tatum and Brown performed together, especially outside the calamity of last season. The Celtics had hoped that the new roster makeup would open avenues for Tatum and Brown to thrive in ways that better resembled the 2018 playoffs than the 2018-19 regular season.
At the quarter pole of the new season, things couldn’t be going much better for the tandem. Tatum is averaging 21.2 points, 7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals over 34.3 minutes per game, all while putting up the best on/off splits on the team. Brown is up to 20 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals over 33.4 minutes per game.
Both players are right on the heels of Walker for the team lead in scoring. Only Gordon Hayward, sidelined for the past 13 games, has grabbed more rebounds than the duo this season. And there’s still the possibility that this tandem has just scratched the surface of their overall potential.
Regardless of how the cast around them looks, it’s becoming clear that the cornerstones of the Celtics team deep into the future centers on Tatum and Brown. And the players seem acutely aware of that fact.
"I think, definitely, the responsibility — a lot of it is on us, so we have to handle that kind of accordingly,” said Brown. "Just each and every night, I don’t think there’s no extra pressure that needs to be added to it. Just come out and play basketball, do what we’ve been doing. And I think everything will take care of itself.”
Brown knows his game complements Tatum’s well.
"I guess I’m more aggressive. JT’s kind of more laid-back,” said Brown. "I like to get to the basket and JT likes to step back and shoot jumpers. So a lot of times, we both mix it up a lot, sometimes I shoot 3s and sometimes he gets to the basket like today. But for the most part it’s kind of like polar opposites.”
However you want to compare and contrast, it’s working. And that’s what matters to Tatum.
"It's a lot of fun. When we're playing hard, playing together, making the right plays and he' doing things like that, it's hard not to get excited,” said Tatum. Later, he was asked about their friendship.
"It's grown a lot. I mean, we spend so much time together, obviously, over the course of 2 ½ seasons. We’ve been in some tough battles and we trust each other. I know what he's capable of and you know what he's going to bring to the table. You know what I'm going to bring to the table, especially in the toughest times. I’d go to war with him any day.”
It helps both of the Jays to have a veteran anchor like Walker alongside and empowering them to take the scoring baton when they have it going. Marcus Smart, who has seen the Jays progress, beams with pride discussing their developments.
"I think everybody sees the steps that they’ve taken towards becoming better basketball players, and it shows,” said Smart.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens is quick to note that there’s still plenty of room for growth for both 23-year-old Brown and 21-year-old Tatum. "That story will be told down the road, right?” said Stevens. "Those guys are still getting better."
But the coach knows everybody in the organization is rooting for them to stay on this path towards tandem stardom.
"Everybody wants them to do really well,” said Stevens. "I think the great part of the whole situation is all the players, all the coaches, all the front office, the whole city, we all want Jayson and Jaylen to do really well. It’s on us to all bring out the best in them and help them continue to grow through tough times or success, and they’re having a lot of success right now.
“With that comes the different challenges of new defenses and more attention and how do you handle that, and those guys have shown themselves well thus far.”
Yup, Tatum just keeps skipping (“That's like my thing. I try not to get too excited, but that's my thing,” said Tatum) and Brown will happily exult after a loud slam, or simply blow kisses after a big 3.
"I guess we feed off each other,” said Brown. "Kind of different games, kind of opposite, but it makes sense. Like fire and ice.”
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.