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Opinion

Tatum’s time to deliver is now if Celtics have any hope of breaking championship drought

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Expert
18th May, 2024
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The Celtics count success in terms of trophies, not Eastern Conference finals appearances. 

Boston have now racked up six in the space of seven years but are still searching for that crucial 18th championship to regain the outright record in their rivalry with the Lakers. 

It’s an easy narrative to spin that it’s now or never for Jayson Tatum. 

But that’s not the truth. 

If they again can’t go all the way, the Celtics will not trade Tatum, Jaylen Brown or any of the other core pieces of this team away in the off-season after revamping their roster last summer. 

Tatum is by any measure one of the top 10 players in the NBA but unfortunately for him and Celtics fans, he has been leapfrogged by the likes of Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nikola Jokic coming from nowhere in the post-LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant era.

Knicks star Jalen Brunson pipped him for fifth in the MVP voting this year even though Tatum, with 26.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists, was clearly the best player on the competition’s top team.

Time is not necessarily running out for Tatum at 26 to prove he can be the MVP of a title-winning team at this franchise but it is a compressed measurement when it comes to assessing NBA careers. 

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Is he going to have a career like Dirk Nowitzki where it takes him more than a decade or so for everything to come together in a perfect playoff storm? 

Or will he keep coming up short time and again in the post-season to the point where the Celtics do indeed lose patience with him and try to bring in another superstar. 

It’s starting to look a little reminiscent of Paul Pierce at the Celtics in the mid 2000s when he was an elite player but never the MVP. 

But when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were acquired, the Celtics had a team that bested the Lakers in the 2008 finals and probably would have added another title the following season if injuries didn’t strike. 

For Tatum there is no KG or Ray Allen coming to BeanTown. 

Boston, MA - May 7: Boston Celtics guard Derrick White, forward Jayson Tatum and guard Jaylen Brown walk onto the court during the first quarter. (Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Jayson Tatum with Derrick White and Jaylen Brown. (Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

He has already got a stellar support cast with Brown backed up by backcourt defensive dynamos in Jrue Holiday and Derrick White with the tall timber of Kristaps Porzingis and veteran Al Horford mixing it up inside and outside.

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The Celtics were far and away the best team in the regular season. 

Their 64-18 record meant they were the first team since the 1975-76 Warriors to finish 14 games ahead of anyone else in their conference, their offensive rating of 122.2 was the best in the play-by-play statistical era since 1997 and they finished with the highest net rating of 11.7 since 2000.

And the playoffs couldn’t have panned out any better for them heading into next week’s Eastern Conference finals. 

They drew what could have been the short straw in the first round with a match-up against Miami, who had surged to the finals from the eighth seed last year. 

But with Jimmy Butler hobbled and the Heat going ice cold, Boston dropped just one game. 

Two of their main rivals fell by the wayside in the first round with injuries cruelling Joel Embiid’s hopes of dragging Philadelphia to glory and Giannis Antetokounmpo doing likewise with Milwaukee. 

Boston belted the dysfunctional Cavaliers 4-1 in the second round with Jarrett Allen AWOL and Donovan Mitchell hampered by injury. 

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And now they will have a week of extra rest to get Porzingis back on the court after his recent calf injury while New York and Indiana’s slugfest goes to a seventh game. 

Whether it’s the banged up Knicks or the inexperienced Pacers who advance, Boston will be overwhelming favourites to make it out of the East even with Porzingis expected to miss the first couple of matches. 

Assuming they take care of business there, the Celtics will have home-court advantage but won’t be favourites if they are up against champions Denver or even Minnesota if they can topple the Nuggets in their game seven. 

OKC or Dallas would be Boston’s preferred finals foe but it’s hard to see the Western champs not coming from the heavyweight battle on the other side of the semifinals bracket. 

The Celtics have no real answer for three-time MVP Nikola Jokic if they run into Denver – no team does. Porzingis has the size but not the defensive nous or temperament to consistently pound into Jokic or be able to deflect his 360-degree passing masterclass.

Horford has the savvy but he also has 38-year-old legs. 

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When he first came to the franchise from Atlanta in 2016, he famously posted a tweet of 18 four-leaf clovers to signify the next championship that he was going to bring to Boston.

He is running out of time more than any other Celtic.

When teams go oh so close for several seasons without going all the way, the coach can be in the firing line. 

Joe Mazzulla has improved considerably in his second season after taking over in dramatic circumstances from Ime Udoka and it would also be a major surprise, and premature, if Boston made a coaching change if this playoff tilt goes off tilt.

For Mazzulla, Horford, the support cast and most importantly Tatum, now is the time to show they can be a champion team. 

This is no big three model – they are a team that is greater than the sum of its collective parts rather than relying on individuals to dominate.

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But it is very rare for a team to win the championship without a genuine superstar apart from the Detroit Pistons of 2004. 

Tatum has been very good but not great so far in the playoffs – 24.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists. It’s alright to cruise against mediocre opposition to save yourself for more meaningful matches down the track.

But if he is unable to elevate his game now that it’s crunch time with the two main contests remaining, Boston’s quest for that elusive 18th trophy will remain unfulfilled.

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