25-under-25: Celtics will go as far as Jayson Tatum can take them

Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports /

Jayson Tatum will be playing on perhaps the most talented Celtics team of his career. But his own responsibilities have never been larger.

Jayson Tatum is a hard worker. The footwork, strength, and knowledge required to do what he does on offense prove the blood, sweat, and tears have all been paid on time. And that putting in work mentality is what most closely aligns Tatum with his idols. At the same time, one can’t possibly look at Tatum’s career and view it as blue-collar trench work. His presence in the NBA Finals last postseason didn’t even begin in the mailroom.

Having already played at Duke, he was drafted into expectation with a number three pick in 2017. His rookie year the Boston Celtics surprised many with a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, but the surprise resulted not so much from the achievement as doing so with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on the sidelines. Prior to Tatum’s arrival, the team played in the Eastern Conference Finals in what was his eventual running mate Jalen Brown’s rookie year. Combined the two have played in four Eastern Conference Finals. Neither is over 25 years old, but each feels as if he’s been around forever. Such is the consistency of the Boston Celtics.

In the First Age, the great Celtics walked out of the Eastern Fog to hang banners from the rafters, and Auerbach was pleased.

In the Second Age, Larry Bird carried the light to the far reaches of the Western waste, keeping watch over the frontiers where enemies might rise and storm at a moment’s notice. No one could doubt the Celtics, but still their power waned as the Midwestern kingdoms rose into prominence.

The Third Age saw the near destruction of Auerbach’s Garden, but Danny Ainge returned to restore order and summoned a mighty fellowship, the likes of which only San Antonio could rival. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen made up the three Celtic kings. Then a betrayal occurred when Allen turned his ring over to the Chosen One in South Beach, and the Celtic House fell into a Brooklyn Darkness.

The gap between Garnett’s last year in Boston and Tatum’s first is only four seasons. That’s a time-lapse video as far as Ages go. The year Garnett and Pierce vacated the premises head coach Doc Rivers also left and Brad Stevens left Butler University to call inbound plays with the big dogs. Then Ainge retired in June of 2021 (by December he was working for the Utah Jazz), and Stevens ascended, or retreated, from coaching and moved into the front office. Ime Udoka then replaced Stevens as head coach, and Udoka is now suspended for improprieties involving an abuse of power and I’m sure you can read all about it somewhere.

Joe Mazzulla is now the interim coach for an as-yet undefined period of time because who knows when or if Udoka will coach again, and no one knows whether Mazulla will work out as a head coach in the NBA. Besides, while Tatum put up nearly identical numbers in his one year playing for Udoka as he did in his last season with Stevens as coach, the team proved to be fifteen wins better with Stevens not on the bench. His time, one could say, had run out (like Gregg Popovich in reverse).

Unusual is it for an NBA roster to have possibly more stability than a coaching staff or front office, but these are times of institutional undoing, are they not? The Celtics are built around the dynamic of having two inferno-throwing wings. Tatum and Brown, when they are on, burn like an oil field at night. They enter into a series with an all-time juggernaut and seize a two-games-to-one-lead. But they are also capable of absurd turnovers. There is after all a cliche about playing with matches, and maybe that is why Brown is always a rumor in trade talk.

When Ainge was at the helm and Stevens on the bench, the talk was always about the future. Which guy can be traded for more picks in the Age to come? The perspective viewed basketball as a game of chess where checkmate is impossible. But Tatum is on a level now where checkmate is forever possible. Just have Marcus Smart get him the damn ball in crunch time–or maybe Tatum needs to call for it. If the head coach seat is a turnstile, then Tatum must take the lead. He’s the guy, the one who has been here for everything. Everyone else has already boarded a ship and left these shores. The Age of the Celtics is Tatum’s.

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