BOSTON — Age matters.
Ask Jaylen Brown, who can now drink alcohol legally after celebrating his 21st birthday Tuesday night, but opted not to comment about whether he looked forward to the occasion; Jayson Tatum, who admits he still sometimes feels nervous on the court as the youngest player on his Boston Celtics team; Danny Ainge, who targeted Kyrie Irving partially because he’s three years younger than Isaiah Thomas; or any number of young NBA teams that have fallen victim to poor execution, uneven defense and inconsistent play.
Yet despite all the evidence around him indicating age matters, Boston head coach Brad Stevens has challenged his players to rise above the entire concept.
“Let’s beat the age thing,” Stevens stressed during a practice this weekend.
Maybe age cannot be beaten, but the Celtics have no choice but to try. They were going to rely heavily on Brown and Tatum anyway after dealing Jae Crowder this summer, but Gordon Hayward’s opening-night injury shoved those guys into unexpected opportunities. Next to Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and the rugged Aron Baynes, Boston now has a rotation of young and younger. Because that can be a death sentence in the unforgiving NBA, Stevens decided his team would wage war on age.
“Let’s not talk about the age thing,” he said. “Let’s talk about how we can be better at what we can control and how we can learn and grow every day and everybody expedite the learning curve. Because they’re going to get opportunity all the way down the line. So let’s not focus on trying to learn from experience. Let’s focus on learning from every day and see if we can’t get a little bit better every day.”
A little bit better? During just the fourth game of the season, Brown and Tatum stomped all over New York’s couch, combining for 45 points, eight rebounds, five steals and three blocks. At halftime of a 110-89 win, the two Celtics youngsters alone trailed the entire Knicks roster by just three points.
Tatum started everything off with a loud putback dunk over Tim Hardaway Jr. Brown took the conch to score 13 points by the end of the first quarter. Tatum yanked it back to score 10 straight Celtics points, a second-quarter stretch that only ended when he made a nice decision to find Shane Larkin for a fast-break triple.
It’s OK to point out the Knicks were a special sort of awful. They were.
Brown and Tatum still accomplished history:
Per Cs PR, Tatum and Jaylen are the first Cs under-22 duo ever to score 20 points in same game.
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) October 25, 2017
And they were strong defensively, too.
“They’re here,” said Horford, “and they’re making their mark right now. I was very proud of them. A lot of people look at the offensive stuff, but defensively their activity, being in the right positions every time, scrambling on defense, Tatum did that time and time again and so did Jaylen. So it was nice to see them have success on offense but defensively that’s where I’m focused with them. And they’ve been doing a really good job.”
However one wants to judge Brown and Tatum, they have shown plenty of promise over the first four games. Brown cracks toward the rim with power and explosion, straddling the line between confidence and cockiness, just beginning to harness all of his physical tools. Tatum glides with long strides and long arms, shy with the media but comfortable beyond his years on the hardwood. Together, they look like an emerging two-way problem for opponents. It’s far too early to know exactly what either player will become long term, but nobody will blame Bostonians right now for dreaming big.
Brown turned 21 Tuesday night. Tatum won’t do so until near the end of next season. But with all the injuries, Stevens knows he has no time to let the kids swim in the shallow end. They’ve both started every game and, in a huge surprise, are currently tied for second on the Celtics with 34.3 minutes per game. They’ve matched up against LeBron James and Giannis Antetokunmpo, a pair of MVP candidates, and run wild against the Knicks’ second-rate wings.
Brown ranks second on Boston at 18.8 points per game while adding 5.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Tatum has averaged 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 47.6-percent shooting, including 45.5-percent from behind the arc. After noting he had been a bit gun-shy next to Boston’s stars, Irving and Horford, the rookie followed his coaching staff’s advice by finally letting it fly against New York. Tatum went 4 for 6 from behind the arc after trying just five shots from that distance over the first three contests.
Welcome to the future, which doubles as the present, which also stands as an alternate universe compared to how this season was supposed to start.
“They are young guys,” Stevens said. “But to us, with the situation we’re in, they’re guys. Like, we need them to be guys.”
The coach added: “I’ll deal in reality and let everybody else praise them — and we need them to play well on Thursday. And so, we’re in a situation right now where we’re going to expect a lot out of those guys and we need them to be great, we need them to be able to respond to adversity, and we need to be able to respond to pats on the back just the same. We have high expectations for them, they should have high expectations for themselves, and they’re getting a great opportunity. So we need them to continue to be good, and there’s a lot of fun in that, I think.”
Brown and Tatum provided enough fun Tuesday to overshadow everything else: Irving’s ongoing adjustment to a new system; Horford’s developing chemistry with his new lead guard; a young defense currently ranked seventh in the NBA; and a successful lob pass from regular alley-oop botcher Terry Rozier, who has been extremely solid on non-alley-oop fronts in the early-going.
The Celtics haven’t always flowed offensively, which is probably to be expected given all the injuries. Stevens was at his most human when one reporter wanted to know if his team had “settled in” against the Knicks.
Cracking a smile, Stevens replied, “I don’t know about settling into anything. Last Thursday we were doing some new stuff, you know? And so we have a long way to go to be as good as we want to be.”
Still, the Celtics nailed 14 of 29 3-pointers against New York while outscoring the Knicks 42-3 from behind the arc. For the second straight game, Boston shut down a top young big man, this time Kristaps Porzingis. Stevens made sure to credit Horford for his work in the matchup, but discussion of the youngsters dominated the postgame press conferences.
Brown and Tatum. Tatum and Brown.
“We need them to be good,” Stevens said.
They have been so far, age be damned.