Celts

In the first month of his sixth season, Tatum set an example of the growth fans had hoped for. Not only is it fun to watch him score goals, it’s fun to watch him play.

No one should expect Jayson Tatum’s height to be linear. JIM DAVIS/GLOBE EMPLOYEE

I can’t pinpoint exactly when a certain realization hit me, but I can probably narrow it down.

It could have been when Jayson Tatum scored 43 points, the most of the season, with a win in Detroit this past Saturday. It may have been during the October 22 victory in Orlando when he hit 14 of 21 shots en route to a jewel-winning 40 points and 8 rebounds. Or maybe it was early in the season when he dropped 35 points on 13-of-20 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds in a satisfying, heralding win over the 76ers. Or maybe it was during one of his other great performances when the Celtics were leading 11-3.

What was that awareness? Simple: that we no longer hear from people howling that the Celtics need to trade for real supahstah! Tatum (as well as Jaylen Brown in the unique way of the second option) silenced them. The Celtics didn’t have to trade for a superstar. Tatum is that superstar right now, in good faith, no objections or so, but it’s not necessary.

Call it a hunch, call it true, or better yet, call it a mockery of those who were so impatient. But the intertwined emergence of Tatum and the Celtics as forces to be reckoned with is infinitely more satisfying than, oh, any pairing of Kyrie Irving-Anthony Davis in green could be.

What is this? Oh yeah, you can bet your rookie bill russell card that those of us who preached patience over the years enjoy it a little more than those who missed A.D., Paul George, 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 all along. This is not just a confirmation. This is starting to feel like an excuse.

Individual excellence is nothing new to Tatum. His progress over his first five seasons culminated in being named to the All-NBA First Team last year. He was the best player of the Eastern Conference champions at the age of 23.

But the most important achievement was painfully unfinished. He struggled in the six games the Celtics lost to the Warriors in the Finals, shooting 36.7 percent from the field and committing 23 turnovers, with his fuel gauge empty.

Jayson Tatum's disappointment in the NBA Finals was obvious.
Jayson Tatum’s disappointment in the NBA Finals was obvious.MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

And so Tatum spent the off-season doing exactly what Celtics fans had come to expect, and exactly what Larry Bird would have done after seasons that ended before the championship: he used his anger and disappointment to refuel and worked tirelessly to perfect his game so that the loss and the accompanying feeling of pain were never repeated.

It was always obvious that Tatum put a lot of work into it. He has a breathtaking physical talent, starting with Armstrong’s outstretched arms that allow him to finish on the hoop even when his back leg appears to be at the free-throw line. But every year he came back noticeably bigger in the arms, and even when his priorities were misdirected – he came back too happy in his second season – he never lacked dedication to his craft to maximize his talent.

No, Tatum’s development wasn’t linear, and it’s absurd to expect it to be. It just doesn’t work that way. The most important thing is that he developed. And now he has grown into the best version of himself as a player.

I hesitated to quote Tatum’s best games because the history of his season – and the reason why every element of the Celtics lineup seems to fit perfectly – is that he is committed to everything.

He is a focused, relentless defender who can take on almost anyone on the pitch. But his unwavering commitment to defense is not where he has made the most progress. It would be his departure.

Not only is Tatum more likely to participate in basketball – something Brown still struggles with – but he’s suddenly become a quarterback wizard. In the first game against Detroit, he made three passes – a left-handed pass to Brown for a dunk, a peek at Al Horford for a third corner, and a long deflected pass to Payton Pritchard for a quick break-up – that wouldn’t have been in his repertoire two years ago.

The game slowed down for him. Has more answers to the test. Watching Tatum’s results is now not only fun. He’s fun to watch play.

“Exchange for a real superstar” – sorry, supahstah! – has been a periodic request over the last half dozen years that has gotten louder and more frequent as the best laid plans like Gordon Hayward broke a leg in a Celtics career minute or Irving gradually revealed himself to be a camaraderie toxin or understandable but sometimes Tatum and Brown’s frustrating growing pains would have deviated from plan.

Some of these rumors predate Tatum. Some fans at a draft event hosted by the team famously booed Brown’s 2016 No. 3 pick because they expected the pick to go to Chicago for Butler. At the end of the trade in February 2017, colleague Adam Himmelsbach reported that the Celtics had offered the Pacers several first round picks – including one that would eventually go to Tatum – for the Pacers for George. In June 2019, there were conflicting reports as to whether the Celtics would be willing to trade Tatum to the Pelicans as part of a deal for Davis.

Good thing the Celtics brain wasn’t listening to anyone. Bringing in superstars from other places can be fun, but it’s more rewarding when a core of players go through some stuff, grow up together, and become everything you thought it could be.

What awaits Tatuma for the rest of the season?
What awaits Tatuma for the rest of the season? JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Don’t accuse me now of raising a banner here before it’s won. We have a long way to go and there will be turbulence because there always is. And with all the premature talk about Tatum for MVP, it’s impossible to forget that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the world, currently making his living in the Eastern Conference and probably thinking of getting revenge after recapturing the Celtics Bucks in the second round of last season.

But this Celtics season seems potentially – potentially – exceptional. They win games they would have lost last season Marcus Smart’s Monday return over pesky Thunder as Commander A. The roster is filled with players who excel at both ends of the court; damn, at this point last season we were still trying to make Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith into competent rotation players.

The magnitude isn’t the same, but there’s a hint of 2003-04 Red Sox vibe here, with the crushing disappointment of one season leading to salvation the next. These Celtics have a real shot at becoming champions – and a real superstar in Tatum, who wants the title more than anything.

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