It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. On the night and on the network that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were named Eastern Conference reserves for the 2021 NBA All-Star Game, the game against the Mavericks against All-NBA Luka Doncic would serve as a public statement for the Celtics’ cornerstones.
It’s not like they didn’t show out on national television. Brown scored 29, including two clutch buckets late when he went mano a mano with Doncic. Tatum stuffed the staff sheet with 28 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and two blocks. However, even with all their individual accomplishments last night and in their brief NBA careers, the duo will be judged by their team’s success and not their own.
A lot of players can put up numbers. Just check out the long list of snubs. Khris Middleton is a two-time All-Star, the Bucks are 19-13, and he’ll be watching the game from his couch. LeBron James called Devin Booker “the most disrespected player in our league” and he’s averaging 25 & 4 for a Phoenix team that has won twenty games in the West.
“Obviously, I was happy for him. It’s his first All-Star. Like I said, he deserved it,” Tatum said about Brown’s first All-Star selection.
“But then it’s like, damn, you look at our record and where we’re at. It’s hard to really focus on that when we’re not where we want to be at as a team. That’s how I kinda approach it. It’s an honor to be an All-Star, but we’re used to winning games and being at the top of the East. That’s where my focus is at, just trying to figure out what’s next for the team.”
In a way, the Celtics rebuild under in the Brad Stevens era has been inverted. Instead of losing, collecting first round picks, and finding franchise players in the draft, Danny Ainge masterfully built a contender through savvy trades and attracting max contract free agents. Getting Tatum and Brown were practically afterthoughts after striking gold with Isaiah Thomas, signing Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, and trading for Kyrie Irving.
But after three conference finals in four years, what largely remains of those teams are two All-Stars, 22 and 24 years old, who haven’t scratched the surface of their potential and prime. Surrounding them is a supporting cast predominantly made up of first round picks from the last two offseasons and over the last two weeks, they’ve started to suffer through some expected growing pains.
After yet another tough loss and collapse in the fourth quarter, both Tatum and Brown were asked about whether or not they trusted their teammates down the stretch.
“Trust? We’re building it. We got new guys trying to find a rhythm. We got multiple bigs that are playing between Rob, Theis, and Tristan. Each and every night, we’re still trying to find that consistency with each other,” Brown said.
“Things vary from game to game. The more we’re out there, the more guys get rhythm and they’re comfortable. Our rotations get a little bit more set in stone. I think the trust is going to continue to build. I think we are building a lot of trust. I feel better about us defensively and offensively. We just gotta string it together and I think it’s a matter of time.”
Against the Mavericks, the Celtics basically went with the eight-man rotation they’ve used over the last five games with rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard filling out on the wings and Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams in the frontcourt. It’s a young second unit that only has 548 total playoff minutes under their belt to Brown and Tatum’s 3412, but one that has been slowing becoming more and more reliable.
“That’s part of being a team. Trusting each other regardless of the result. Trust comes after all the work we’ve put in since we’ve been in the league, since being part of this team. Knowing what each other is capable of,” Tatum said after Boston’s bench was outscored 51-19. “You don’t stop trusting a guy because he just missed his last shot or was struggling in that game. You always encourage them to make the right play and believe the next one is going in.”
The All-Star nod can be a blessing and a curse. Contract bonuses and national recognition come with expectations and for Brown and Tatum to be truly great, they don’t want to be playing in the biggest meaningless showcase in March. They want to be playing well into May, June, and July. That’s going to take time. Not just for their teammates to get up to speed, but for the two talented twentysomethings to do more growing themselves.
“I don’t feel like an All-Star because we’re below .500. I could have done a better job in inspiring my teammates, getting guys going, and learning and growing. It’s not all about scoring the ball,” Brown said. “I realize that. It’s about getting teammates involved and things like that. I’m learning and growing. It’s a process. I don’t feel like an All-Star because this is the most I’ve lost since I’ve been here as a Celtic. We gotta find ways to win.”