Chris Forsberg

Tatum and Brown's journey could make a title finish even sweeter

Raising Banner 18 would change everything for the Celtics' All-Star duo.

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Twenty months ago, still stung from stumbling in their first trip to the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics’ All-Star tandem of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum plopped down together in a pair of director chairs on a movie soundstage and were asked about their goals.

“Individually, we can be whatever in this league — I believe that,” said Brown. “Me, I want to win.”

Then, turning toward Tatum, Brown asked his All-NBA teammate if he wanted to win. Tatum smiled wide and quickly affirmed.

“He wants to win, too,” said Brown. "That’s what it comes down to.”

Tatum soon added, “Nothing else matters. All the individual stuff, I would trade that all to win a championship. And I believe that we’re going to do it.”

Chris Forsberg sits down with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in an October 2022 interview to discuss the Celtics' chances over returning to the NBA Finals and more.

Six hundred some-odd days later, after enduring a few more painful bumps in the road, the Jays sit one win away from backing up their declarations. Throughout the entirety of the 2023-24 season, both Brown and Tatum sacrificed individual stats to allow every piece of an overhauled roster to thrive. Now, the Celtics stand one win away from a title victory that will change so many of the narratives that have been lingering around the duo.

On the 16th anniversary of Boston’s last title triumph, with the date reflecting the city’s area code (June 17 and 617), the Celtics have an opportunity Monday to claim Banner 18 when the Mavericks visit TD Garden for Game 5 of the 2024 NBA Finals.

It’s fascinating to go back and listen to the Jays coming off the loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 Finals. They basically tell you what’s going to happen in the aftermath. They push back on all the criticisms they faced in not being able to get over the final hump and essentially promise that they will eventually secure a title.

Now that championship is within their grasp.

How appropriate, too, that Brown and Tatum are the two favorites to emerge as Finals MVP. Brown is the frontrunner, having left an indelible two-way mark against the Mavericks, especially with his willingness to defend Luka Doncic. A loud Game 5 might be enough for Tatum to swoop in at the finish line and snag the MVP honor.

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t feel like it matters to either one how that award tips, so long as they both get to hold the Larry O’Brien Trophy. It’s impossible to ignore individual honors — and Brown being left off the All-NBA and All-Defense teams certainly motivated him at times this postseason — but both players have channeled all their energy towards the quest for the title that will alter how they are viewed, both as a duo and individually.

All the strife the tandem endured only should make a title that much sweeter. For years, the Jays faced relentless criticism with pundits screaming about whether they could win together. They drew individual critiques for not putting up the sort of gaudy stat lines that other superstars posted, despite their counting stats naturally dipping with the addition of two talented starters in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis this season.

A championship ring would cement the legacy of the Jays, even if it might only be one chapter in this tandem’s story. The conversation around them should shift from what they hadn’t accomplished, to trying to figure out where they sit among the best duos in league history.

Much of that won’t be determined until much later in their careers. But a title is validation that this all could work. Not that either has lost much sleep when other suggested it wouldn’t.

The “young guys” who drew much of the blame when Boston’s title hopes withered despite having talent-filled rosters (like during the 2018-19 season) have a chance to secure the elusive banner. How appropriate that Kyrie Irving would be across the court at the finish line of this journey.

Irving once yearned for his No. 11 to hang in the rafters at TD Garden. A title might be the first step in the possibility that Nos. 0 and 7 will eventually find their way there.

Even the most optimistic person couldn’t quite have envisioned this moment during the summer of "7/11" and Tatum’s Boston debut during the 2017 Summer League before he swapped from jersey No. 11 to 0. There was hope that the young duo, both No. 3 draft picks, could further accelerate a Boston squad on the come up. But there were a whole lot more twists and turns ahead.

Along the way, the Jays said all the right things. They embraced the bumps in the road and never got frustrated by the journey. This postseason, they continue to keep their focus on the ultimate prize.

"It's definitely a blessing to be here, to represent the Celtics, my family, the organization, the community, our greater community,” Brown said Sunday. "It’s an honor that I don't take lightly. So just to come out every night and play for something, for what I represent, I think that matters.

"My relationship with Boston has grown. I've been here for almost nine years now, since I was 18, 19 years old. I've grown up. I've become a man here. Boston is special. I'm looking forward to Game 5.”

It’s been a long journey, but Monday night could change everything.

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