I can’t pinpoint the exact moment a certain realization dawned on me, but I probably can narrow it down.
It might have been when Jayson Tatum went off for 43 points, a season high, in a win at Detroit this past Saturday. It could have been during the Oct. 22 win at Orlando, when he hit 14 of 21 shots en route to a 40-point, 8-rebound gem. Or maybe it was as far back as the season opener, when he dropped 35 points on 13-of-20 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds in a satisfying, foretelling win over the 76ers. Or maybe it was during one of his assorted other superb performances during the Celtics’ affirming 11-3 start.
And what was that realization? Simple: That we no longer hear from folks howling that the Celtics need to trade for a true supahstah! Tatum (and Jaylen Brown too in an exceptional second-option kind of way) has silenced them. The Celtics didn’t need to trade for a superstar. Tatum is that superstar now, bona fide, no caveats or yeah-buts necessary.
Call it a hunch, call it the truth, or better yet, call it mockery of those who were oh-so-impatient. But the intertwined emergence of Tatum and the Celtics as forces with which to be reckoned is infinitely more satisfying than, oh, any Kyrie Irving-Anthony Davis pairing in green could possibly have been.
What’s that? Oh yes, you can bet your Bill Russell rookie card that those of us who preached patience over the years are enjoying this just a little bit more than those who pined for AD, or Paul George, or Jimmy Butler, or the available semi-superstar of the moment.
Keeping Tatum and Brown and trying to build something special around them was the right thing to do all along. This isn’t just confirmation. It’s starting to feel like vindication.
Individual excellence is nothing new to Tatum. His progression over his first five seasons culminated in a first-team All-NBA selection last year. He was the best player on the Eastern Conference champions in his age-23 season.
But the most important achievement was left agonizingly undone. He struggled in the Celtics’ six-game loss to the Warriors in the Finals, shooting 36.7 percent from the field and committing 23 turnovers, his fuel gauge hitting empty.
And so Tatum spent the offseason doing exactly what Celtics fans hoped he’d do, and precisely what Larry Bird would do after seasons that ended short of a championship: He used his anger and disappointment to refuel, and he worked relentlessly to hone his game to make sure such a loss, and the accompanying aching feeling, would never happen again.
It was always obvious that Tatum put in the work. He has breathtaking physical talent, starting with those Stretch Armstrong arms that allow him to finish at the rim even when he appears to have his back foot on the free throw line. But he came back noticeably bigger in the shoulders every year, and even when his priorities were misguided — he came back way too step-back-happy in his second season — his dedication to his craft, to maximize his talent, was never lacking.
No, Tatum’s growth was not linear, and it’s absurd to have expected it to be. That’s just not how it works. The important thing was that he was growing. And now he’s grown into the best version of himself as a player.
I was somewhat hesitant to cite Tatum’s best-scoring games, because the story of his season — and the reason why every Celtics roster piece seems to fit perfectly — is that he’s committed to everything.
He is a focused, relentless defender who can match up with almost anyone on the court. But his unwavering commitment on the defensive end isn’t where he’s made the greatest strides. That would be his passing.
Not only is Tatum a more willing sharer of the basketball — something Brown still struggles with — but he’s suddenly a wizard of a playmaker. He made three passes in the first Detroit game — a lefthanded pass to Brown for a dunk, a behind-the-back look to Al Horford for a corner three, and a long bounce pass to Payton Pritchard for a fast-break layup — that would not have been in his repertoire two years ago.
The game has slowed down for him. He has more answers to the test. It’s not just fun to watch Tatum score now. It’s fun to watch him play.
“Trade for a true superstar” — sorry, supahstah! — was a periodic plea over the past half-dozen years, one that would grow louder and more frequent when best-laid plans, such as Gordon Hayward snapping his leg minutes into his Celtics career or Irving gradually revealing himself to be a toxin to camaraderie or Tatum and Brown’s understandable but sometimes frustrating growing pains, would deviate from the blueprint.
Some of those rumors predated Tatum. Some fans at a team-hosted draft party famously booed the selection of Brown with the No. 3 pick in 2016 because they were anticipating the pick being traded to Chicago for Butler. At the trading deadline in February 2017, colleague Adam Himmelsbach reported that the Celtics offered several first-round picks — including the one that would eventually be parlayed into Tatum — to the Pacers for George. In June 2019, conflicting reports surfaced about whether the Celtics would have been willing to trade Tatum to the Pelicans in a deal for Davis.
Good thing the Celtics brain trust didn’t listen to anyone. Bringing in superstars from elsewhere can be a delight, but it is more satisfying when a core of players goes through some stuff, grows up together, and becomes everything you thought they could be.
Now, don’t accuse me of hanging a banner here before it is won. There’s a long way to go, and there will be turbulence, because there always is. And for all of the premature Tatum-for-MVP chatter, it cannot be forgotten that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the world, he currently makes his living in the Eastern Conference, and he probably has vengeance on his mind after the Celtics bounced the Bucks in the second round last season.
But this Celtics season feels potentially — potentially — special. They’re winning games they would have lost last season, with Monday’s Marcus Smart-led comeback over the pesky Thunder as Exhibit A. The roster is loaded with players who excel on both ends of the floor; heck, at this point last season, we were still trying to talk ourselves into Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith as competent rotational players.
The magnitude is not the same, but there’s a hint of a 2003-04 Red Sox vibe here, with the crushing disappointment of one season leading to salvation in the next. These Celtics have a real chance to be champions — and a true superstar in Tatum who covets that title more than anything.