“Have we gotten better from last year? Yeah, a lot better,” Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics told reporters during the N.B.A.’s All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City.
Tatum had every reason to be brimming with confidence. His stock has never been higher — as signified by the reveal of his own signature shoe this week. In the basketball world, this is an indication that Tatum has graduated from N.B.A. star to N.B.A. star. He would go on to win the Most Valuable Player Award in the beer-league charade known as the All-Star Game, a cherry on top of the already M.V.P. caliber season he is having.
He is also the best player on the best team in the N.B.A., with the weight of championship expectations on his shoulders and those of his fellow All-Star and teammate Jaylen Brown. This would be an enviable position for most teams. But the pressure is exponentially higher in a city home to a ravenous fan base and a franchise with long history of winning in the 20th century.
When asked about the Celtics operating as an established power rather than an underdog, Tatum had already consulted the Pro Athlete Cliché Handbook.
“No pressure,” Tatum said. “We feel like we’ve been, if not the best, one of the best teams all season. The goal has always been the same: win a championship. So, you know, just do the right things. Don’t skip any steps. Take it one day at a time.”
For Boston’s remaining 23 regular-season games and a presumed deep playoff run, the scrutiny will be much higher than that placed on last year’s young, upstart team. The Celtics (42-17) have the burden of having lots of ways to fail and only one way to be considered a success.
“Our environment will change,” Celtics Coach Joe Mazzulla said in a news conference. “And so we have to make sure we don’t.”
Last week, Mazzulla had the interim tag removed from his title. He had been thrust into the role right before training camp when last year’s coach, Ime Udoka, was suspended for unspecified violations of team policies. The suspension came as a shock since the Celtics were an ascendant franchise coming off a finals run in a league where continuity is at a premium. Almost as surprising was that Brad Stevens, the team’s president of basketball operations and Udoka’s predecessor, handed the keys to Mazzulla, who had been a Celtics assistant for three years but never an N.B.A. head coach.
All Mazzulla had to do was lead the Celtics to a championship. No training wheels. No emotional victories. Just victories.
His presence created an odd and unusual dynamic. For much of the season, Udoka was still technically slated to come back in 2023-24 regardless of how Mazzulla did. But Mazzulla got the Celtics off to a blistering 18-4 start, quieting questions about whether his lack of experience would hinder an elite team. Eventually, the Celtics rewarded Mazzulla with what might be considered gold in N.B.A. coaching: security.
“The East is terrific. Obviously, the West is loaded up,” Stevens said on a conference call last week. “It’s going to be really hard to win.” He added that it would be hard to coach while “looking behind you and looking over your shoulder.”
Mazzulla may not be looking over his shoulder anymore, but the Celtics should be because teams are gaining on them. Since the hot start, the team has looked merely above average at 23-13, rather than world beating. They’re now only a half-game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks (41-17) for the N.B.A.’s best record and the East’s top seed. Mazzulla has been criticized for not calling timeouts at crucial junctures in games. Over the last 15 games, the Celtics have had a below average offense. During the 18-4 stretch to start the season, the Celtics had not just the best offense in the N.B.A., but one of the best offenses in league history. The good news for Boston is that its defense has steadily improved while its offense has declined.
The Celtics should receive a boost after the All-Star break, in the great gift of health. The starting lineup that took the team deep in last year’s playoffs — Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams III — has played only 29 minutes together this season. That unit is expected to be at full strength for the last stretch of the season.
But even with injuries, the team is deep enough to contend. Derrick White, the sixth-year guard, has been a revelation during his first full season in Boston. In eight February games stepping in for the injured Smart, White averaged 21.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Malcolm Brogdon, whom the Celtics acquired in an off-season trade with Indiana, has been a reliable contributor and one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. Brogdon and White would likely be starters on most N.B.A. teams. That the Celtics expect to use them as reserves is a luxury. In one of their last games before the All-Star break, the Celtics nearly knocked off the Bucks on the road despite missing almost all of their top players.
The talent is there for the Celtics to win the championship. They are loaded with playmakers, elite shooting and top-notch defenders who can play multiple positions. They can counter Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo with a steady rotation of mobile forwards, including Horford. Their division-rival Nets imploded at the deadline and traded away their superstars, Kyrie Irving to Dallas and Kevin Durant to Phoenix.
But lots of teams enter the playoffs with talent, as Boston did last year. Now, the Celtics, as Brown noted, should be better prepared for a grueling playoff run after last year’s finals against Golden State, when the team made sloppy, uncharacteristic mistakes and lost the series in six games.
“I think this year we got a little bit more experience,” Brown told reporters. “So I think that will carry over into the finals.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests continuity and experience are crucial for N.B.A. teams to win championships, and that playoff failures are necessary steppingstones to immortality. Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls suffered through the Bad Boys Pistons teams before starting their reign. Ditto the Miami Heat, who lost deep in previous playoffs before winning their championships in 2006 and 2012. It’s extremely rare for young teams to win championships, though Magic Johnson was a crucial part of the Los Angeles Lakers championship run during his rookie season in 1980 and Tim Duncan led the San Antonio Spurs to a ring in 1999 in his second.
Some teams never quite get there, even with experience and talent — like LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the late 2000s. The jury is still out on the Phoenix Suns, who lost in the second round last year after coming within two games of winning the 2021 championship.
This is the Celtics’ best chance to win a championship since 2008, their last title run. If they don’t raise the trophy this season, or at least make the finals, they won’t be able to say it’s because of a lack of talent or experience. It’ll be something intangible.
Being in that place means the franchise must meet lofty ambitions. But it’s better than not having them at all.