Jayson Tatum, as dejected as we have seen him in his nascent career, lolled out of the press room following his Boston Celtics’ NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors and hugged his father.
“It hurts,” Tatum had just told a horde of reporters huddled in a corner of TD Garden, as the smell of cigar smoke emanated from the nearby visitors’ locker room. “I feel like I could have done a lot of things better.”
Following a lengthy discussion, the first team All-NBA forward exited the arena in one direction, and Justin Tatum left in the other, stopping occasionally to greet gathered friends and family, Celtics staff and media.
“We’ll be back,” the elder Tatum said, projecting optimism in place of his son’s pain.
He answered the question on everyone’s mind before anyone dared ask him in the heat of defeat. Was this a singular chance for these surprise Celtics or another battle scar on the road to an ultimate championship?
Jayson Tatum turned 24 years old in March. Only a handful of superstars have ever been the best player on championship teams before their 25th birthdays, and all but Bill Walton had Hall of Fame help in their prime.
Larry Bird’s 1981 Celtics featured in-season All-Stars Tiny Archibald and Robert Parish, and a 23-year-old Kevin McHale coming off the bench. Magic Johnson’s 1982 Los Angeles Lakers boasted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo, not to mention All-Star Norm Nixon, all aged 26-34. Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade, respectively, shared the spotlight with David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal, both 33 at the time for the 1999 San Antonio Spurs and 2006 Miami Heat. That is the under-25 list in the last 50 years.
None of them faced Stephen Curry and an established dynasty. All won at least three titles in five Finals. Remember that before you consider this the legacy-defining moment for Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s Celtics.
“We went from a below-.500 team, average team, to putting it together,” said Al Horford, the only Celtic older than 30. “I want us to keep perspective on how much growth Jayson and Jaylen had this year. There’s a lot of responsibility on their hands. They took it in stride. They made adjustments. They improved. They grew as players. But, as you can see, there’s still a lot of growth and a lot of work for all of us. The Warriors definitely were on a different level. It’s something that we have to accept, and we all have to grow.”
Yeah, but Bird and Magic and Wade and Duncan all won, you say.
Tatum’s idol, Kobe Bryant, pocketed three titles before age 24 as a sidekick to peak late-20s Shaq and needed six more years to reach the Finals without him. LeBron James and Michael Jordan were 27 when they were first crowned. Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo were 26 years old when they first won. Tatum and the 25-year-old Brown are well ahead of schedule, even when compared to recent all-time greats.
Should Tatum and Brown continue on their career trajectories in Boston, which at this rate should have them respectively competing for MVP and All-NBA consideration for the foreseeable future, there is little reason to believe they will not give themselves a chance at championship redemption in the years to come.
Save for a 36-year-old Horford, Marcus Smart at 28 years old is the oldest of a core that also includes Robert Williams III, Derrick White, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard. All are contracted through at least the next two seasons. They are now Finals tested, and this experience gives them all an idea the level to which each will have to raise his game to beat an opponent the caliber of the four-time champion Warriors.
“You always got the advantage if you’re experienced,” said Robert Williams.
The league’s ever-changing landscape raises some doubt about their ability to evolve collectively. Brown can become an unrestricted free agent in 2024, and Tatum owns a player option in 2025. Either leaving would cripple Boston’s title chances, and that threat should ensure ownership invests in this roster. They have the taxpayer midlevel exception, several trade exceptions and future draft picks to bolster this core.
“They’d be crazy if they don’t keep those guys together,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said of the Celtics on his podcast from TD Garden. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if we see this team, some time in the near future, when we’re done, win a championship. They’ve got it. They’re not weak; they’re not soft. They’ve got scoring, they’ve got the defense, they’ve got the bigs. If there’s one place they can improve, it’s probably their depth. If you look at this series, I feel like they just ran out of gas, and that was it for us.”
All that said, the Celtics needed seven games to survive both Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, who were without All-Star Khris Middleton, and a Heat team that has flexibility to improve its roster. Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant might also still have their say over the next several years in a deep Eastern Conference.
Out West, the Warriors have reinforcements in development. The Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets will be formidable when healthy. The Phoenix Suns are contenders if they do not combust in the light of an early exit. Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Ja Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies loom as teams of the future.
There are no guaranteed title shots, which is what makes the self-inflicted punishment part of this one so tough for the Celtics to swallow. They led Game 4 with less than five minutes left to establish a 3-1 series lead. Game 5 was a one-point game entering the fourth quarter. They committed 56 turnovers over the final three games against Golden State, suffering their first three-game losing streak of 2022. Call it inexperience or fatigue or whatever you will, Boston did not meet this moment, and the agony of that may never subside.
“We did it to ourselves. We had opportunities to go up and win,” said Brown. “We’ve shown our immaturity at times, and it stings. Still a young group. Still got a lot to learn. Nothing to hang our head about.”
It is how they harness that torment that will ultimately decide the fate of their Finals future.
“We know what it feels like to get to this point,” said Tatum. “Getting here and not accomplishing it, it’s tough. You don’t want to feel like this again, but you want to get back here. … Yeah, it’s going to fuel us.”
Do not forget Celtics coach Ime Udoka was a Spurs assistant when the Heat’s Ray Allen stole a title from them in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, and San Antonio returned with a vengeance to beat Miami a year later.
“I’ve lost one before,” said Udoka. “That was part of the message. Let it propel us forward, the experience, growth and progress that we made this season. Obviously, getting to your ultimate goal and falling a few games short is going to hurt. There are a lot of guys in there, very emotional right now. … The biggest message was learn from this, grow from it, take this experience and see there is another level to get to.”
Tatum’s performance in the championship series was especially disappointing. The Eastern Conference Finals MVP shot just 37% from the field against the Warriors. Much will be made of his disappearance after the first quarter of a deciding Game 6. Did he wilt in the face of mounting pressure? Was the shoulder injury he suffered earlier in the playoffs worse than we thought? Did a historic amount of minutes tire him out?
None of those questions will matter if Tatum responds the way great players do. James used subpar Finals efforts at ages 22 and 26 as motivation to win four championships in eight more appearances over the next nine seasons. He is an extreme example, and the Celtics will hope Tatum does not flee for help elsewhere.
“You’re an All-Star, All-NBA first team guy for a reason,” said Udoka. “This is only the start of how you’re going to be guarded and the attention you’re going to draw. One thing that he’s always done throughout the season was seeing multiple different coverages and figuring it out. He did that throughout the first few series. This one was a rough one. Very consistent team that did some things to limit him and make others pay. For him, it’s just continuing to grow and understanding you’re going to see this the rest of your career.”
A cautionary tale for these Celtics is the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. They lost a five-game Finals set to James’ Heat and looked to be the team of the future. Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were all under 25 years old. They traded Harden and still reached two more conference finals in four years, but a blown 3-1 series lead to the Warriors in 2016 convinced Durant he could not win a title with Westbrook.
Durant needed Golden State’s championship DNA to win his two titles, a testament to the anomaly that is these Warriors. Taking them to six games, nearly assuming full control of the series, is no small feat for the Celtics. Of course, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the upstart Seattle SuperSonics forced Game 6 in the 1996 Finals against Jordan’s Chicago Bulls dynasty, only to be disbanded after a second-round encore.
For every one-and-done roster, there is one that returned, never to win, and another that broke through. Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers, Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz and Jason Kidd’s New Jersey Nets all lost a second time. Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers reached three Finals before adding Moses Malone and winning in 1983. Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons lost a Game 7 to Magic’s Lakers in 1988, only to win their next two Finals appearances. Hakeem Olajuwon made the 1986 Finals at age 23, and it took the Houston Rockets eight more years to finally build a title team around him. A 27-year-old Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks lost the 2006 Finals and returned triumphantly five years later.
You should sense a pattern. Are Tatum and Brown the equivalent of Payton and Kemp or Drexler and Terry Porter — good, but never good enough? Or can one or both blossom into an all-timer? Kobe, Dirk, LeBron, Kawhi, Steph and Giannis have won the last 14 titles, often with help from other members of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. With the exception of the 2004 Pistons, who were not unlike Boston’s defensive-oriented ensemble, every champion for four decades running has featured one of the 30 best players ever.
“There are levels,” said Udoka. “You can see the difference in Golden State, a team that’s been there, been together for a long time. The core group, it’s been 10 years now. We’ve seen what we can achieve. It hurts we fell short of that, but the future is bright, and we’re just getting started, so let’s all come back better.”
All of which is to say whether Tatum, Brown and these Celtics return to this stage is entirely up to them.
With that knowledge, Tatum took the long walk around a Golden State celebration that was still unfolding on his home court and stepped into the next phase of his career, where nothing but greatness is enough.