DALLAS — There is plenty of credit to go around for the Celtics’ 15-game winning streak. Boston hasn’t lost in a month, and the streak came about so suddenly and unexpectedly.
Every button coach Brad Stevens has pushed the past 15 games seemingly has worked, every lineup change, every instinctive move, every defensive adjustment, and every play call.
What has been surprising and heartening for the organization is the rapid development of rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year man Jaylen Brown, both of who have cemented themselves not only as NBA starters but reliable scorers and critical players alongside Kyrie Irving and Al Horford.
Brown is enduring a difficult time. He lost his best friend, Trevin Steede, last week and pushed himself to play through Thursday’s win over the Warriors and Saturday’s victory over the Hawks. After an emotional postgame interview Thursday, Brown boarded a 6 a.m. flight Friday to his native Atlanta ahead of his teammates.
He consoled Steede’s family and then scored a career-high 27 points against the Hawks. Instead of speaking with the media, Brown left the locker room soon after getting dressed and spent additional time with his family.
His perseverance at age 21 is admirable and his teammates have nothing but respect and adulation for his strength. Brown has been perhaps the team’s biggest surprise this season. The Celtics expected him to take a step forward from an inconsistent but encouraging rookie season, but it’s been more like a leap.
He has doubled his scoring and rebounding averages from his first season and also become a nearly 40 percent 3-point shooter. If you recall, perimeter shooting was considered a primary weakness when Brown came out of the University of California. Brown was a 29.4 percent 3-point shooter from the college line during his lone year with the Bears.
Brown hit 30 threes in 34 college games. Brown hit four threes on Saturday.
Despite being in pain with grief, Brown was at his absolute best against the Hawks.
“It’s a brotherhood,” teammate Marcus Smart said. “We give him his proper space but we also let him know that we’re here for him. He’s a strong kid. Anybody in that situation, for him to come out and play, it shows a lot and says a lot about that person. We applaud Jaylen for that.”
Smart has endured a great deal of personal tragedy during his 23 years, including the passing of his brother from cancer and the shooting death of his cousin two years ago during a Celtics West Coast trip. Smart has displayed amazing fortitude throughout his years.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life and I think that’s what helped me build the character that I have today,” he said. “It helped me through adversity. I definitely pulled [Jaylen] to the side.
“There’s things more important than basketball and he’s witnessing that and he’s going through it, but he’s a strong kid and this is another obstacle and challenge that’s going to make him stronger.”
Tatum, who doesn’t turn 20 until March, went scoreless in the first half Saturday after scoring 2 points in the first half Thursday. Those rookie blues are eventually going to arrive and Tatum has experienced some inconsistency of late. But just when the Celtics thought he might be mentally spent after a frustrating stretch Saturday, he responded with 14 third-quarter points and catapulted the Celtics from a deficit and allowed them to pull away in the fourth quarter.
There was overwhelming doubt about team president Danny Ainge’s decision to swap the No. 1 overall pick to the 76ers — the Celtics giving up the chance to draft University of Washington point guard Markelle Fultz. Ainge had set his sights on Tatum with the No. 3 pick. Tatum, who is a cinch for the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, is fourth on the team in scoring.
“Sometime shots just don’t go your way but it’s a long game and you get into you groove, things start opening up and coming easy,” he said of his first-half skid. “I don’t get too down on myself. I know I can shoot. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in, but it doesn’t stop me from shooting.”
Tatum is quiet and doesn’t show much emotion on the floor, but he has a self-confidence that is beyond his years. His nearly seamless transition to the NBA has been perhaps the biggest surprise for a team full of surprises.
There was a reason Golden State coach Steve Kerr referred to the Celtics as the “team of the future” last week. It is primarily because of their dynamic swingmen who have relieved offensive pressure on Irving and Horford and also made a major impact defensively.
Eventually the win streak will end. Brown and Tatum can be thanked for their contributions to this run, and the Celtics can then look forward to the continued progress they will make in what could be a special season in Boston.