Jayson Tatum is not 19 anymore, but sometimes, you’re reminded just how young he and Jaylen Brown are.
After tying the game on a clutch fadeaway only to see R.J. Barrett hit a miracle three at the buzzer on Thursday night, the 23-year-old said of the team’s recent losing streak and bad habit of giving up fourth quarter leads, “you just gotta look at the big picture, the grand scheme of things. Look back at those years when we were going to the conference finals. It makes you really appreciate those moments, ‘cause it’s hard. It’s not easy. I think early on in my rookie year, I thought it was just normal, winning all those games, winning games in the playoffs — probably taking it for granted a little bit.”
It was a sobering moment on a night when Tatum was spectacular, but just not spectacular enough. It felt like the lowest point of the 2021-2022 season. Not only was it a devastating loss, but compounded with his head coach calling out the team for a lack of mental toughness and a season full of devastating losses, the full weight of the expectations that Tatum puts on himself along with the added pressure from fans and the media seemed too much.
Just four nights earlier, Jaylen Brown scored 50 points in a win against the Orlando Magic. Afterwards when he met with reporters, his words weren’t filled with joy and a sense of accomplishment after hitting a career-high. No, Brown answered, “we needed to win. No way we could have lost this game. It wouldn’t have been good. The media wouldn’t have been good, so I wanted to get a win for everybody.”
On one hand, this is what the 23-year-old Tatum and the 25-year-old Brown signed up for. They both signed rookie extensions to stay in Boston and cynics will point to their bank accounts as license to be critical. That’s fair, I suppose. Contracts in the millions are somehow also social contracts with the fans and public criticism is part of the job.
However, do so with some context in mind. A little compassion and civility may not hurt either. What were you doing when you were 23? How about 24? I’ll spot you another year. Say 25. What were you doing when you were 25? Had you reached the peak of your career?
Dear 25-year-olds, how’s the worldwide pandemic been going for you? Lifelong dreams and aspirations met? I’m guessing things haven’t panned out just as you had planned.
If the tone comes off as condescending, it’s meant to be. It’s meant to parrot the all too familiar public discourse we have about sports today and more importantly, its young athletes. “Squawk squawk squawk,” goes the AM radio hosts. “Tweet tweet tweet,” goes all the armchair experts and pundits on social media.
I understand that the context I’m not considering is, well, the entire ecosystem of professional sports. I’m raging against the rage machine. The Celtics’ 19-21 record is disappointing and sure, I want them to be better because I think they can be better. Could the team benefit from more ball movement? Would adding more shooters to the rotation help? Are we at the point where we need to discuss trading Dennis Schroder? Let’s talk. I’m all for it. Those are conversations worth having. But when we veer into what amounts to character assassinations, it becomes a slippery slope. That runoff slag cements into a manufactured narrative that they have to answer to.
Take the infuriating notion that Tatum and Brown need to be broken up, in part because they’re not friends. Their relationship has always been framed as this “will they or won’t they” tabloid fabrication and last night, it reared its ugly head again.
After Brown had his first career triple-double in a redeeming blowout of the Knicks, The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn probed, “after an excrutiating loss (in New York on Thursday), there’s the public overreaction. ‘The Celtics gotta do something. They gotta blow this up. They gotta do something. They gotta break you and Jayson up.’ I’m sure you’ve heard that. What’s your take on yours and Jayson’s long-term future and also do nights like this convince you that you guys are meant to play together?”
Brown responded, “I disagree. I think we can play together. We have played together well for a majority of our career and things like that. This year hasn’t gone as expected. I think a lot of the adversity that we’ve gone through now is just going to help us grow and get better for the future. If we get over this whole thing and continue to learn, I think there’s a lot of good basketball on the other side of this.”
Brown continued, “Me and JT talk. We talked after the game. We communicated with each other and things like that, so we’re on the page. I get where all the other frustration comes from, but as long as I’m on the same page as him and he’s on the same page with me, that’s where we’re mostly focused on.”
The criticism continued on social media. Former Celtic and NBC Sports Boston’s Kendrick Perkins tweeted praise at Brown and shade at Tatum for going 6-for-14 in the blowout. Tatum responded, “normalizing uplifting one man without bringing another one down… JB played great it’s alright to leave it at that.” Even Tatum’s mother logged on:
Under normal circumstances I would GO IN and address how toxic and negative someone is regarding my son. It’s funny the games they comment on and the ones the refrain from. But then I googled this person career stats. This a joke right. Carry on.
— BCole_Esq (@Brandy_N_Cole) January 9, 2022
On a night when Tatum, Brown, and the Celtics earned a sliver of redemption from this unforgiving season, it could be the spark for a turnaround in the second half of the year. They were better on Saturday night and hopefully moving forward, we can be, too.