After he closed quickly on a driving Tyrese Maxey and swatted his layup into the stands, Jayson Tatum faced the sellout Boston crowd and roared in delight. The TD Garden faithful last saw Tatum at one of the lowest points of his career, being handcuffed by Andrew Wiggins in the NBA Finals in June.
Tatum’s first game since that disheartening series, Tuesday against the Philadelphia 76ers, was a brilliant response as the Celtics begin a pivotal season.
They enter the 2022-23 campaign as championship favorites, a fate that will only materialize if Tatum raises his game and leadership to an elite level. And it will only occur if Jaylen Brown plays like the All-Star he believes he is.
The duo was dynamic in the NBA’s season opener. They punished the Philadelphia defense with an array of drives to the hoop, effortless midrange jumpers, and splashy 3-pointers.
They scored 35 points each in the Celtics 126-117 win, a game Boston controlled after a shaky opening period.
The Celtics endured a tumultuous offseason, losing Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL, Robert Williams to knee surgery, and coach Ime Udoka to a stunning suspension.
The past few weeks have been spent adjusting to interim coach Joe Mazzulla, digesting Udoka’s departure even though all the circumstances behind the suspension still may not be understood. The Celtics players didn’t have time to mourn. The NBA wasn’t going to grant the club a week off to clear their heads. They had to quickly pivot to a new voice, an energetic 34-year-old who is more like an older brother than coach.
If the Celtics are going to earn banner No. 18, Brown and Tatum will have to help Mazzulla adjust, work in concert with their coach as he adjusts to being a first-time coach. He looked completely under control in Game 1, as the Celtics used a 32-16 third-quarter run to take a 13-point lead late in the period.
Tatum was unstoppable in that stretch, scoring 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting. Brown then took over in the fourth, scoring nearly half of the Celtics’ 28 final-period points as they held on late without much suspense.
Brown and Tatum are determined to prove they are among the NBA’s best duos, and each has plenty of motivation as they enter their primes. Tatum wants to prove he’s a top 5 player after struggling during the NBA Finals and losing stature after being named first team All-NBA.
Brown still seems annoyed he was bandied about in trade talks for Kevin Durant and seeks more respect and All-Star consideration.
“We both had bad summers after losing to the Warriors on our home floor and have to answer for it all summer long,” Brown said. “We both are extremely competitive; we both are trying to get better, trying to make our franchise better, trying to make our teammates better as we’re chasing a championship.
“I can speak for him and I can speak for myself that it was tough. So going into this season we kept all of that in mind.”
Tatum and Brown should play with more of an edge. They should be indignant after last season. They should play with more vigor.
Early in the third quarter, Joel Embiid grabbed a defensive rebound from Marcus Smart, clamped Smart’s arm, and then swung his arms to make a pass. Smart responded by tripping Embiid and the two got into a scrum on the floor. Brown came over to defend Smart, pointing his finger at Embiid as a warning about his using his 7-foot, 280 pound body as a weapon.
“You could say that,” Brown said. “I thought the duration of the game, Embiid was getting away with a lot of unnecessary pushing and shoving, just being a big guy. He was throwing his weight around a little bit. In that play, it seems like he was trying to hurt Smart, instincts just came right over.
“We finished the game and we played good basketball. We’ve got each other’s back out there. We’re not taking no mess this year.”
Tatum agreed with his teammate that the summer was difficult. A month after the Finals, Tatum decided to take questions on Twitter and one fan asked why he was “trash” against the Warriors in the Finals. Tatum responded by saying fall down nine times and get up 10.
But he admitted he was bothered by his Finals performance and fans who either reminded him tersely of the loss or tried to be encouraging without being critical. Tatum knew the latter were just trying to spare his feelings.
“I’m glad the season has started so we can stop talking about [the Finals],” he said. “It was a tough summer for myself, everybody because everywhere I felt someone mentioned [the Finals]. It’s just a reminder that you lost. You go to the top and you didn’t get over that hump. Dealing with that all summer and realizing that it’s opening night and one team is getting rings and we’re not.
“That kept me up late last night, but it’s a new season and we’re ready to move past it.”
Tuesday was a positive start in that process, and the duo should use that Finals disappointment to motivate them all season.