By Shaun Whalen
While only worth two points, this moment set a surge through The Green and The Garden. Closing the Cavs' precarious lead to 2, 76-74, with 6:41 left in what had largely been only steps above a barroom brawl, Jayson Tatum elevated himself and the Celtics to the infinite unknown of crushing expectations and impossible optimism.
It is often strange to see a moment that resonates so violently in its own wake, but moments hold within them the greatest of joy and possibility.
In the moment, this dunk closed the gap and--if only for a moment, 37 seconds later--the Celtics would take the lead on a Tatum 3-pointer. The Garden erupted in a way only a Boston crowd can: unruly and unrepentant for its bravado and fortune. This Celtics team, broken but unbent, refused to willingly give in to the excuses. The Jays and Rozier and Al and the Marcuses were not meant to meet LeBron head on; they were meant to be accompanying guests at the party. Kyrie and Gordon were to be the face of the Celtic Nation, but the best laid plans oft go awry, and--in this case--Brad and his Celtics found a way to the summit: a Game 7 against The King, a tyrant of fastidious and abundant wealth, but with a withering army. And this moment, this glorious and exploding moment, represented what the Celtics of this year (and all the future years) are capable of.
In the near future, after a Jeff Green 3PM (UGHHHHHHHHHH!), both teams would go cold (almost 2:00 minutes game times with no scoring). A number of free throws--by the Cavs--and a bunch of missed-three-point shots--by the Celtics--later, the Celtics would walk the halls of the Garden defeated.
But somehow, this loss was enough. This moment of unexpected greatness and unrealistic expectations is enough to be the springboard to greater things.
In his drive and dunk however, Jayson Tatum set into motion a series of thoughts, takes, and arguments that will echo throughout the dog days of summer (but then again, the NBA is an all-season league now, and it is glorious). Likely, those echoes will go round and round for a decade or more.
Jayson Tatum is a bonafide star.
With every playoff game, Jayson Tatum seemingly became more comfortable with himself. I will not lie and say I believed in JayBae from the beginning; I trusted in him because Danny did. For everything I read and talk about, there is no substitute for NBA experience and scouting. And Danny is a savant. Tatum exploded and continued to burn (starting 80 games!) before a mid-season slump (The Rookie Wall) occurred. But his playoffs were something different. He outlasted both Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, but with a poise neither seemed to have despite their impressiveness. Every step seems pre-destined, each stutter a purposeful movement towards a goal of immeasurable magnitude, and his coolness a consistent reminder of a quiet confidence beyond his years.
Gordo-Jaylen-Jayson are the future (the present?).
This statement proves the now-irrepressible notion of being able to switch seamlessly against the ever-evolving NBA offenses. With a potential 2-5 of Hayward, Brown, Tatum, and Horford, and either Irving/Rozier at the helm, the Celtics are staggeringly long and effective on both offense and defense. As Tatum and Brown continue to mature on the court (and in the weight room), their versatility only becomes more potent by searching out mismatches and engaging as playmakers for others.
Jaylen is the Key
I will die on the Jaylen Brown hill (refer to my previous Kawhi comparisons). While Tatum's game has a smoothness and fluidity to it, Jaylen carries himself with a fast-twitch that is frightening in all the best ways. Switching on defense will become a hallmark, but Jaylen will ultimately be The Stopper for these Celtics (especially with Marcus Smart's upcoming RFA). He has already shown himself to be a more than capable scorer, but his quickness and strength will allow him to lockdown the opposing team's best player on a nightly basis, freeing up Tatum to focus on the other end. He has shown no fear of the moment nor any fear of whatever superstar might be opposing him. Somehow lost in Tatum's meteoric rise is the fact that Jaylen Brown is still only 21 (he will turn 22 at the beginning of next season). He is still a full 3-5 years away from his potential prime. HOW IS ALL THIS POSSIBLE?
In Danny We Trust
This could have been. And that would have been awful. With upcoming FAs, more draft picks (STILL!), tough decisions will always loom, but Danny Ainge has continually shown himself to be steps ahead of others--even if a few lucky bounces helped out. With Brad and Danny in tow and an ownership committed to winning, the Celtics seem to be in position to contend for years despite the inevitable roster turnover.
With the NBA's ever-changing landscape, little to nothing is guaranteed. Only four years ago, the Warriors had not been to a NBA Finals in close to 30 years. Now, they've gone to four straight. With a team as young and talented as this Celtics, it would seem they are poised to contend for the forseeable future, but injuries, contracts, and the ever dangerous "disease of me" could change these brief moments of joy into exasperating, debilitating "if onlys." Be sure to savor these moments, for if nature's first green is gold, then our Green Celtics shall one day transform. Into what we can only speculate. Here's hoping it is the Gold of the Larry O'Brien Trophy and the Green of Banner 18.