Celtics

Celtics season is bringing the best out of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum

Celtics season is bringing the best out of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum

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.

What to make of the Celtics amid their midseason tailspin

What to make of the Celtics amid their midseason tailspin

MILWAUKEE — The Boston Celtics will arrive at the midway point of the 2019-20 season this weekend trying to pull themselves out of a tailspin that’s seen them drop five of their last seven games, including a pair of Eastern Conference showdowns with chief rivals Philadelphia and Milwaukee a week apart.

The Celtics have vacillated somewhere between enjoyable overachiever capable of pushing the East’s best to a maddening squad with fatal flaws that might prevent it from truly emerging in the conference. Sometimes they look like both in the same night.

Like on Thursday in Milwaukee when Boston dug itself a 27-point hole as the NBA-leading Bucks hit an absurd barrage of first-half 3-pointers. Just when it seemed fair to suggest that Boston’s early season success might have been the product on feasting on inferior competition, a Jaylen Brown-less Boston squad jumped on Kemba Walker’s back and nearly roared all the way back.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

As coach Brad Stevens likes to remind his team, you’re never as good as you think you are, you’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never far from either. The Celtics’ inability to field a fully healthy roster has clouded their overall potential and we’re left making bold proclamations off small samples of good and bad play.

Are the Celtics true contenders? Maybe, but the past couple weeks hasn’t helped their case. Boston is now 7-8 against teams over .500 and only two of those wins came on the road (both when an opponent was missing a key player). They whiffed with a chance to pounce on an Embiid-less Philly last week and then couldn’t capitalize on Giannis-less minutes after getting within single digits in the second half on Thursday night.

Do the Celtics need to make a move? Maybe, but it’d be a lot easier to judge if we could ever see all their puzzle pieces together. Boston’s bench play has been woeful at times and, for all the consternation about their lack of pure size, it sure feels like shooting is what they should be targeting. And yet it’s fair to wonder, if Brown plays on Thursday, and Marcus Smart shifts to his typical bench role, then maybe the bench production doesn’t look as meager.

Ultimately, bench pieces aren’t going to tip this thing one way or another. The Celtics are going to go as far as their five best players can carry them, as Stevens made clear after Thursday’s loss.

"We’re going to ride our best five, as we’ve talked about quite a bit, and then we just need everybody else to play a role around them,” said Stevens. "But we need those five to be awfully good.”

On this night, Walker was exceptional. On the same night that Kyrie Irving delivered one of his patented rants about roster flaws in Brooklyn, Walker challenged himself to be better after a disheartening loss to the Pistons. He responded with a 40-point, 11-rebound outburst in Milwaukee. As Stevens abridged, "Only reason we had a chance.”

The coach added, “It's not [Walker’s] responsibility to be responsible for everybody else’s energy but I’m glad that he accepts it. I’m glad that he wants that. He certainly brought it tonight. He was awfully special tonight.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Gordon Hayward, who has been on a bit of a roller coaster since returning from nerve pain in his foot on Christmas Day. Hayward missed nine of the 10 shots he took — including eight 3-pointers — while finishing with 7 points over 32:15.

“I thought we had some good looks, especially personally, I had some good looks. But we just didn’t make them,” said Hayward. “Have to be better next time.”

But that only accentuates Boston’s rather thin margin for error against the elite (and maybe the not-so elite, too). The team had been undefeated this season when playing without Brown but they really missed him on Thursday. The Celtics don’t have the sort of top-end talent that can win a game individually (though Walker sure as hell tried on Thursday).

A February 6 trade deadline looms. It’s hard to imagine the Celtics making a big-splash move but adding a bench piece — if for no other reason than the run of injuries this team continues to endure — remains something the team must consider. Maybe that’s using picks to help fetch a shooter, or maybe it’s just thumbing through the scrap heap for someone who can be a more steady eighth or ninth man. The youngsters on this team have had their moments but they’re also being asked to do a lot at young ages.

It was telling, though, Thursday when Boston cut its deficit to 8 and Antetokounmpo headed to the bench with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter. Boston should have capitalized but its sub lineups floundered and Milwaukee pushed its lead back up to 20 before Antetokounmpo returned at the end of the quarter. A second Boston run came up just short at the end of the game.

Stevens glowed about how the second half looked more like “Celtics basketball.” Smart insisted the team wouldn’t overreact to this rough patch.

"It’s the NBA. You can’t get discouraged off that,” said Smart. "We’ve played two back-to-back nights and stuff like that. You can’t let that discourage you. That’s part of it. We’re at the 40-game mark. It happens.”

Maybe he’s right. Still, watching this team on a daily basis, we yearn for a glimpse of this team when whole. But who knows if it’ll ever happen. Robert Williams could be a nice jolt for the center rotation if he’s able to come back after the All-Star break but that’s unlikely to alter the path of this team much.

No, the success of this team more likely hinges on Smart, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Walker.

“I think we’re still pretty good,” said Hayward. "I don’t think the team is down or anything like that. I think we realize we’ve got work to do and we get right back to it.”

The quest to figure out exactly what these Celtics are continues. They’re not as good as we though they were, they’re not as bad as some will make it seem now. But they’re never quite far from either.

Celtics-Bucks Overreactions: Are C's unable to contend with beasts of the East?

Celtics-Bucks Overreactions: Are C's unable to contend with beasts of the East?

The Boston Celtics now have lost five of their last seven games as they fell to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night, 128-123.

Kemba Walker (40 points) stepped up big-time with Jaylen Brown out due to a thumb injury, but he could only take the C's so far. Marcus Smart, who replaced Brown in the starting lineup, contributed 24 points of his own.

Here are three instant overreactions from the C's loss, which brings them to 27-13 on the year.

1. The Celtics can't contend with the beasts in the East.

Verdict: Overreaction

To say the C's looked sluggish on the second night of their back-to-back vs. the NBA's best team would be an understatement.

Outside of Walker and Smart, the offense couldn't get anything going until the fourth quarter when it was too late. Defensively, it was more of the same.

This loss, combined with the C's 0-3 record against the Philadelphia 76ers this year, isn't going to inspire much confidence in their ability to go toe-to-toe with the beasts of the Eastern Conference. But it's far too premature to declare Boston wouldn't be able to compete with them in a seven-game series.

The Celtics did manage to beat the Bucks in Boston earlier in the season. They just happened to meet up again during a time in which the C's are going through their biggest slump of the year and most grueling part in their schedule while dealing with injuries to key players.

Long story short, do not make the mistake of counting this team out in January.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

2. Celtics defense has some serious issues to work out.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Defending the 3-ball has been a real problem for Boston all season long, and it was glaring again in Thursday's loss.

The Bucks shot the lights out through the first three quarters before scuffling in the fourth. They finished with a 51.6 shooting percentage beyond the arc and 49.4 percentage altogether. The Celtics let Donte DiVenchezno go 6-for-11 from the field and 4-of-6 from 3.

Needless to say, there's plenty for this struggling defense to clean up.

3. C's need a bench scorer, not a center.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

The Celtics needed much more from their bench throughout the contest.

Enes Kanter has been the spark off the bench all season long and tallied nine points on Thursday night, but other than his contributions and Semi Ojeleye's two 3-pointers, this was an area of concern.

If you're going to beg Boston to make a deal before the Feb. 6 trade deadline, it should be for a consistent bench scorer. Not Andre Drummond or another big man. This is an adequate rebounding team, but down the road, a lack of scoring depth could come back to bite them.

Forsberg: Green's journey to NBA a 'dream come true'

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Suns-Celtics, which begin Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.