Celtics

Why Jayson Tatum believes Celtics have 'realistic' shot at NBA title

Why Jayson Tatum believes Celtics have 'realistic' shot at NBA title

All-Star forward Jayson Tatum believes the Boston Celtics have a "realistic" chance of winning the NBA title inside the Disney bubble and isn’t surprised by how bullish those within the organization have been about their chances to contend.

"I think that's the mentality you should have,” Tatum said during a Zoom conference with reporters after Boston’s workout on Saturday morning. "I've never been on a team in my life -- whether it was high school or college or since I have been on the Celtics -- where I didn't think we should settle for like third place. 

"I always thought, that's why we played, to be the last team standing, so I think automatically we have that mindset, and we have a realistic chance. We have the talent, the experience, the depth, and we compete with the best of them. We scrap, we play defense, and our mindset is to never give up. We have a lot of guys who have been through a lot with each other, been through a lot of battles over the last couple years, so we hold each other accountable, trust each other, and we're going to fight 'til there's zero on the clock.”

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The Celtics enter the restart sitting third in the Eastern Conference but have a chance to chase Toronto for the No. 2 spot during the seeding games. Enes Kanter said the team hasn’t talked much about seeding, putting an emphasis on simply being healthy when the games matter most.

But, like Tatum, he’s bullish on Boston’s chances.

"I feel like we have enough talent to beat every team on every floor,” said Kanter. "The only thing I would care about is if my guys are healthy or not. Right now, everybody is healthy, everybody is going out, just trying to get in the best shape. I feel like, man, Celtics can beat every team on every floor, so we are not worrying about who we are going to face, or who are we not going to face. 

"We’re just going out there and just show the world because, beginning of the season, man, there was so many haters out there. There was so many doubters out there that were saying that the Celtics were not going to be the best. Celtics are not going to do it this year. I feel like we’ve proved them wrong already but our job is not done yet. We just need to go out there and finish the job and show the whole world we got what we need.”

After their initial quarantine in their Disney hotel, the Celtics held practice sessions on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Players said it delivered a little bit of normalcy in a unique situation.

"Just being able to practice with all the guys, get after it,” said Tatum. "It’s been so long since we got to be in the gym all together. So it’s been fun. We’re all enjoying it, getting back into the rhythm. So we’re having a lot of fun.”

Tatum, who will be key to Boston’s success inside the bubble, said he focused on his body while the season was paused. Asked if had added muscle mass to his frame, Tatum got a bit coy.

“I did. But it’s not for public knowledge,” said Tatum. "I can't tell everybody my secrets.”

Enes Kanter Show: C's center gives first impressions of NBA bubble | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

Only in the NBA bubble could two budding stars battle on the court one moment then ham it up in the media room the next.

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was speaking to reporters via video conference Tuesday night after Boston's 112-106 loss to Miami when Heat big man Bam Adebayo strode into the room for his own interview session.

Adebayo wasn't in a waiting mood, though, so he tried to distract Tatum with a few incredulous looks from the corner.

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Here's the entertaining scene, as captured by ESPN's Rachel Nichols in Orlando:

Props to Tatum for maintaining his focus as Adebayo tried to run interference. The two young stars then shared a playful exchange in which Tatum appeared to chide Adebayo for benefiting from some whistles. (The Heat big man scored 11 of his 21 points on free throws thanks to 18 free throw attempts, a game high.)

"You shot free throws like you won MVP or something," Tatum appeared to tell Adebayo.

Their banter was all in good nature: Tatum and Adebayo were teammates in the 2016 McDonald's All-American Game and entered the 2017 NBA Draft together, so they go way back. But Tatum still may have had a bitter taste in his mouth after picking up five fouls and getting hit with a technical in Tuesday's loss.

Both players are also in the running for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award amid career seasons; Adebayo is averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds) with 1.3 blocks per game for Miami, while Tatum is racking up 23.4 points and seven rebounds per game as he blossoms into an NBA star.

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the Celtics’ ceiling? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

We could sit here and scream about how poor Boston’s defense has been inside the bubble. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 117.9 after their first three seeding games, and only one team has a worse mark (the helter-skelter Sixers).

We could lament Boston’s lethargy after the team whiffed Tuesday with a chance to essentially lock up the No. 3 seed while playing a Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat team that was on the second night of a back-to-back.

Boston hasn’t played with any sort of consistent energy in its three games, falling behind early against Milwaukee, coughing up a big lead against Portland, and trying to play catchup all night against Miami.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets, which begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

But here’s one thought we couldn’t shake while watching Tuesday’s game: What a luxury it is for Miami to have a rookie like Tyler Herro on their bench. Herro chipped in 11 points over 22 minutes during the Heat’s 112-106 triumph.

With Marcus Smart in foul trouble — so much so that he fouled out late in the third quarter — Boston lacked a bench boost. Take away Enes Kanter’s 10 points and the Celtics’ reserve trio of Grant Williams, Brad Wanamaker, and Smart combined for 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting.

At one point during the second half, Celtics coach Brad Stevens dispatched Romeo Langford for his first seeding-game minutes but Langford turned in a scoreless 3 minutes, 44 seconds, in which he mostly blended into the scenery.

Herro, of course, went one spot ahead of Langford in the 2019 draft. There had been a buzz before draft night that the Celtics were fond of Herro and that he had impressed the team with his shooting in one of his workouts. There might have even been a few groans inside the Auerbach Center when Miami snagged the Kentucky product at No. 13.

The Celtics ultimately took Langford, who has no shortage of potential and might eventually be a better pro. But his rookie season got off to a slow start as he healed from hand surgery and then he dealt with a bunch of minor maladies that even limited how much floor time he got with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League.

Herro has now appeared in 50 games for Miami while shooting a robust 39 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 5.4 attempts per game. He wasn’t even Miami’s best rookie this season — that distinction goes to Kendrick Nunn — but Herro won Erik Spoelstra’s confidence and is now a key rotation piece while logging 26.9 minutes per game.

On Tuesday, Miami’s four-man bench combined for 43 points on 31 shots while each player logged at least 21 minutes of floor time. For Boston, Semi Ojeleye missed five of his six shots, including multiple open 3s. Smart finished 0-for-5 shooting.

Make no mistake, Boston will lean heavy on its core players when the playoffs arrive. When Kemba Walker is off his minute restriction, and combined with a hefty dose of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, that might leave only a small handful of minutes for reserves not named Smart.

Still, games like Tuesday night show how important it is to have players that can take the baton, even if it’s only on rare nights. None of Boston’s younger players have shown enough this year to earn Stevens’ unwavering trust.

Again, guys like Grant Williams and Langford could have bright futures. Maybe Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, too. That’s especially important for Boston because of how much money they have tied up long term in their core players.

But the fact of that matter is that, right now, none of Boston’s rookies have seized their opportunity, nor has 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams, who was only inserted late in Tuesday’s game to defend an inbounds attempt with his length and bounce.

Those players could get another chance to show what they’ve got on Wednesday when Boston plays a back-to-back against the Nets. With Walker set to rest his knee and Stevens unlikely to go too heavy on starter minutes in the team’s first (and only) bubble double, younger players will need to take advantage of whatever minutes come their way.

Herro won’t be the difference between a first-round upset and a first-round exit for Miami. But the Heat are well-positioned moving into the future because of the progress their youngest players made this season. It’s critical teams develop talent if they are going to commit most of their money to their top stars.

The Celtics are left waiting for their youngest players to show they are ready.

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