BOSTON — Even before Gordon Hayward suffered the gruesome ankle injury that might cost him the rest of the 2017-18 season, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were viewed as potential wild cards for the Boston Celtics’ 2017-18 season. When Hayward was lost on opening night, the spotlight simply got a little bit brighter for Boston’s pair of recent No. 3 picks.
Brown, who celebrated his 21st birthday Tuesday, and Tatum, a 19-year-old rookie, seem unfazed by the notion that Boston’s ability to compete, especially in the immediate Hayward-less future, might ultimately hinge on them. The duo maintained that they already had extremely high expectations for themselves so any outside pressure was unlikely to impact them.
In the infancy of Boston’s season, the Brown/Tatum combination has been maybe the biggest reason for optimism despite the stomach-wrenching loss of an All-Star. The duo dazzled again Tuesday with Brown putting up a team-high 23 points and Tatum adding 22 as the Celtics stomped the visiting New York Knicks 110-89 at TD Garden.
Brown and Tatum became the first Celtics duo at age 21 or younger to score 20 or more points in the same game, according to Elias Sports Bureau. That’s the sort of performance that makes Boston’s long-term future look incredibly intriguing, but coach Brad Stevens doesn’t want his players waiting for their moment to shine. “They are young guys but, to us, with the situation we’re in, they’re guys,” Stevens said. “Like, we need them to be guys.”
The insinuation: If Boston is to maintain its loftiest goals for this season then the Celtics can’t be content to let Tatum and Brown develop with a vision of what this team could be in a season or two. They need Tatum and Brown to help this team now.
As Kyrie Irving tries to get himself settled in Boston, he very much likes what he sees from some of his youngest supporting cast members.
“It’s hard to put a cap on some of the talent that those guys have,” Irving said. “I didn’t really have too many expectations, I just wanted them to just go out and prove to themselves that they can go out and make an impact on this team and gain experience, beyond their years.
“Obviously [Hayward] going down, the expectations for our team as a collective were really high, but I think, individually, [Tatum and Brown] had their own expectations, which I can appreciate. They’re going to be their own worst critic, but I’m their biggest fan over here.”
Tatum set the tone Tuesday with a rim-rattling tip slam after soaring between Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis early in the first quarter. Brown added a double-pump reverse jam on a breakaway later in the quarter that sort of underscored the mood of the night.
The uber-athletic Brown and the long-armed Tatum were menaces on both ends of the floor Tuesday. Brown came scrambling with help and blocked 6-foot-11 Enes Kanter at the rim early in the first quarter then stripped Courtney Lee before his Jordan-like reverse jam. Brown bounced so high on the dunk it seemed as if his flat top might scrape the rim and he exulted with a loud scream toward the Boston bench after gravity finally reeled him back in.
Tatum used his length to finger-tip swat a Lee layup attempt early in the second quarter (this after scrambling from a step behind) then ran the floor and finished a Terry Rozier alley-oop lob with a layup. It was just part of a stretch in which Tatum scored 10 straight Boston points. The sequence also included two above the break 3-pointers and a turnaround jumper over Lee in the post.
“They’re here and they’re making their mark right now,” teammate Al Horford said. “I was very proud of them. A lot of people look at the offensive stuff but, defensively, their activity being in the right positions every time, scrambling on defense — Tatum did that time and time again and so did Jaylen. So it was nice to see them have success on offense, but defensively that’s where I’m focused with them and they’ve been doing a really good job.”
Brown and Tatum were fast friends when Boston opened summer league practices in late June. By the time summer games tipped in Utah in early July, they had secret handshakes and a universally adored nickname: 7-Eleven, a reference to their summer jersey numbers.
But then Boston signed Hayward and had to overhaul its roster to make room for his bulky contract. When Avery Bradley was dealt to Detroit, it vacated the No. 0 that Tatum secretly coveted and he made the difficult decision to switch digits.
Since the swap, the Jays haven’t quite been able to come up with an adequate nickname. Jaywatch. Trouble 07. Threes Company. Nothing has quite stuck like that 7-Eleven monicker and even Tatum and Brown have lamented the nickname struggle.
Fortunately, the search for a sobriquet is maybe the biggest problem the pair has encountered early in the season. The duo has started each of Boston’s first four games together, pairing in Stevens’ switch-happy lineups.
Now the challenge is getting better as expectations on their own play rises.
“The difference between [being] great [and average] is how consistent you are in this league, so that’s the thing that I’m just going to continue to echo to those guys,” Irving said. “Just be themselves and continue to get better every single day.”
Tatum’s big night came on the same day that the agent for Philadelphia 76ers rookie Markelle Fultz detailed how the No. 1 pick has been battling shoulder discomfort and had a cortisone shot in early October in hopes of alleviating the issue. The Celtics traded the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia before June’s draft in exchange for the No. 3 pick and a future first-round pick, which could deliver a high lottery selection from the Los Angeles Lakers or Sacramento Kings in 2018.
Tatum even comes with the Paul Pierce stamp of approval. Pierce even green-lighted comparison between the two players. Pierce, after spending time with Tatum this summer, said before the start of the new season: “[Tatum] has a really mature game. I think he’s going to be a major contributor for this team this year.”
But not even Pierce could have envisioned just how much Boston would have to lean on both Tatum and Brown.
After Tuesday’s game, Brown was asked if he was going to enjoy his first legal adult beverage. He laughed and offered, “No comment.” It seems Brown is not about to toast an early dose of success.
“I tell myself [stay grounded] every day,” Brown said. “Thierry Henry, a famous soccer player, I got to hang out with him this summer and that was one of the things he told me. He was like, ‘Treat every day like everyone is on the same line.’ Every day I have to come out and show why I’m me or separate myself or just be the best I can every day. No days off.”
Tatum wouldn’t divulge what he got Brown for his birthday but praised the 21-year-old for how he has helped him early in his rookie season. And he thinks even brighter days are ahead for the pair.
Said Tatum: “We’re gonna keep getting better and more comfortable with each other as time goes on.”