In 2008, the Boston Celtics added the 17th championship to their franchise's trophy case to give them the most in NBA history.
Trading for superstars in their prime like Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen took that team over the top, but it was Paul Pierce's team. Pierce was the captain. The face of the franchise that helped end the Celtics worst drought in the organization's history - a 21-year span without an NBA title.
Before Pierce, it was Larry Bird alongside Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Before that it was John Havlicek who filled the shoes of Bill Russell who himself followed in the Chuck Taylors of Bob Cousy.
All of the aforementioned are Hall of Famers or Hall of Famers-to-be.
But the face of the Celtics franchise has been up for grabs since Pierce and Garnett were traded in 2013. Isaiah Thomas flirted with grabbing that unofficial moniker until his injury and subsquent trade in 2017 prematurely ended any notion of a sustained Celtics' legacy. Kyrie Irving seemed like a safe bet to assume the title until that soap opera was canceled following a drama-filled second season.
Just before acquiring Irving, General Manager Danny Ainge put a lot on the line in trading the franchise's second-ever No. 1 overall draft selection to move back two spots. With that No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Boston selected 18-year-old, one-and-done forward Jayson Tatum out of Duke, and almost immediately watched him showcase just how high - or non-existant - his ceiling could be in the near-future.
With the team down two All-Stars in Irving and Gordon Hayward, the rookie forward revealed flashes of a player who could one day take on that role as the face of the franchise as he led Boston to an unlikely and inspiring extended playoff run. Tatum fell just a single game short of the NBA Finals, nearly dethroning LeBron James' insane eight-year run of pure dominance in the East.
A single dunk hinted at the potential of a Tatum-fueled future.
However, Tatum had a plateauing sophomore season which called that "non-existant" ceiling into question. The rookie who was super skilled with a quick first step and a knack for creating open looks, whether at the rim or on the perimeter, had turned into a contested midrange machine. His aggressive attacks to the basket turned into step-back, fadeaway 2s with a hand in his face, drastically diminishing his free throw rate. His silky smooth and flowing game transformed into a byproduct of forced shots among Boston's incredibly selfish "my turn, your turn" offence.
Apparently just a side effect of the most confounding season from an NBA team in recent memory - though this year's Philadelphia 76ers are challenging that notion - the Celtics forward isn't just back on track, he's breaking speed records on the road that was paved for him.
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This past offseason, Tatum made his intentions clear - he wanted to change and better his shot selection. Less long 2s and settling for midrange pull-ups. More getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line, and fine-tuning his perimeter jumper.
From the get-go in the 2019-20 season it was evident that he took that personal challenge seriously. According to NBA stats, a slim 16.3% of Tatum's shot attempts have come from the midrange so far this year. Just a season ago, more than a quarter of his field goal attempts (26.6%) were midrange jumpers.
He's taking better shots and attacking the basket much more frequently, getting to the free throw line as a result. And though his free throw numbers and shooting percentages didn't represent that right away, it's been the glaring difference in this second leap he's taken this season.
Even with those numbers on the left, Tatum was still named an All-Star. That was a personal goal of his heading into the season and it almost seems like he had applied so much pressure on himself to achieve that, that once he checked that box, it cleared him to play more freely and really take the mental lid off of his game.
Since the calendar turned to February after that All-Star selection, Tatum has taken his game to a completely different level. He's scoring at will and he's getting to the free throw line at the highest rate of his young career. He's also increased his assists, rebounds, and blocks per game averages from the first half of the season.
"Is Tatum an All-Star?" is no longer the conversation, nor will it be for the foreseeable future.
That's been replaced with "can Tatum be the best player in any playoff series" or "can Tatum win an MVP some day?"
The latter might be a stretch based off of a hot streak over a few weeks, but if you've been watching, it's clear that his demeanor has changed. His confidence level is through the roof. He's carrying himself with the swagger of a bonafide superstar. When he has the ball in his hands, he looks like he's playing with the attitude that not a single defender on the planet can stop him.
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He's ready to be THE guy in Boston. And if your argument is that the majority of this run has come with All-Star guard Kemba Walker on the sidelines, even Walker has been preaching for this version of Tatum all season.
Back on Dec. 22, Walker told the media, "Nobody has seen nothing yet. He's coming. He's coming strong," after Tatum dropped a then-career-high of 39 points in a win over the Charlotte Hornets.
Exactly one month later, when Walker was asked about Tatum's increasing ability to take over games, he again bolstered his teammates' capacity and potential. "He is. I'm trying to encourage him more to do so. He's just gotta become that killer, which he is."
Tatum hasn't just been the Celtics closer as of late. He's been the Celtics closer all season.
According to NBA stats, his 54 field goal attempts in the clutch lead the team with Walker's 40 field goal attempts second. The major difference: Tatum has been much more efficient with the game on the line. Take a look.
|Jayson Tatum||Stat Category||Kemba Walker|
|53.7% (29-54)||FG% (FG-FGA)||37.5% (15-40)|
|40.9% (9-22)||3P% (3P-3PA)||42.3% (11-26)|
|81.0% (17-21)||FT% (FT-FTA)||76.5% (13-17)|
We saw Tatum knock down his first career game-winner against the New York Knicks earlier this season. He's also buried a handful of other big shots that have either sent games into overtime or completely put opponents away.
And something that's gotten much less attention than his growth on the offensive end has been Tatum's progression as a defender. While what you see on film doesn't always translate to tangible stats on defence, Tatum's averaging a career-best 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks per game and has taken on larger defensive assignments as the season has gone on.
Just two weeks ago, we saw him go toe-to-toe with LeBron on both ends of the floor, and James didn't hesitate to give the young fella some credit following their battle.
"The kid is special," James said after the game. "Obviously, that's the reason (he was a) first-time All-Star. He's been special all year ... He was special all night."
He even took his praise a step further, showing the Celtics star some love on his Instagram page later on that evening, calling Tatum an "absolute problem."
19 years ago, Paul Pierce suited up against the defending champion Lakers at the STAPLES Center. It was March 13, 2001. The 23-year-old only needed 19 shots to tally 42 points. It was the best performance of his career to date, the type of "I'm here" moment that's a staple in the rise of any rising star.
Rick Fox and Robert Horry, a pair of wily veterans with deep bags of tricks and tactics to counter almost everything, both tried to shut down him down but to no avail. Neither had an answer as the fire in Pierce's eyes burned white hot as he scorched the net from all angles. His jumper was knock-down. His first step looked quicker than ever. In his third season in the league, it was clear he was making that leap to join the NBA's elite. This contest against the Lakers - though his efforts came in a loss - may as well have been his coming out party.
Reigning Finals MVP Shaquille O'Neal took notice. After that game, he pulled Boston Herald reporter Steve Bulpett aside. "Take this down. My name is Shaquille O'Neal and Paul Pierce is the (expletive) truth. Quote me on that and don't take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn't know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is The Truth."
19 years later, Jayson Tatum took to the STAPLES Center floor to face off against the Lakers on a national stage. Los Angeles wasn't the defending champions, but they did have the best player in the world in LeBron James, and it's still Celtics-Lakers. The best rivalry in league history.
Tatum had been playing the best basketball of his career, but there's no better test than going against The King. His response: a 41-point breakout performance that sent a message to the league. Boston came up short, but the third-year forward still played well enough to receive some praise from an all-time great.
LeBron didn't exactly go to the extent Shaq did, nor did he specifically call Tatum "The Problem", but posting it on social media is like the 2020 version of that, no?
Boston is currently enduring a 12-year championship drought - their second-longest in franchise history. And after six years of searching for a new face of the franchise, it's becoming more apparent with each game this season.
Turning 22 years old today, Jayson Tatum is the next face of the Boston Celtics franchise.
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