LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.—Jaylen Brown has a story. He’s going to tell it. Wait … no he’s not. “I can’t throw JT under the bus like that,” Brown said. JT is Jayson Tatum, Brown’s teammate. The story predates that, to high school, when Tatum and Brown were teenagers, chopping it up at an Under Armour camp. Roommates, back when the NBA was little more than a dream.
“He’s always been cool,” Tatum said.
Said Brown, “He was solid. I didn’t have any problems with JT.”
On Tuesday, Boston will attempt to take a commanding 2-0 lead over Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Tatum and Brown are big reasons why. Tatum, 22, emerged as an All-Star in his third season and is averaging nearly 26 points per game in the playoffs. Brown, 23, made a run at an All-Star spot, too, while averaging 20 points of his own this postseason.
“They can do a little bit of everything,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse says. “And they can guard a little bit of everything as well. They can drive it. They can post you if they get the right matchups. A lot of the best players in the league are in that big wing, athletic position that can do about every skill. They’re two way players, both of them.”
Watching Tatum and Brown terrorize opponents, it’s easy to forget how close they came to being split up. No team was involved in more high-profile trade rumors the last few years than Boston. The Celtics had young talent and a cache of draft picks. When a top player became available (Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis), Boston was routinely cited as a destination. Tatum and Brown were perceived less as players than as assets.
That ended last summer. Davis was traded to Los Angeles, ending Boston’s nearly two-year pursuit. Kyrie Irving signed with Brooklyn as a free agent. In October, the Celtics locked up Brown with a four-year, $115 million contract. This fall, Tatum could ink a max-level contract of his own. After years of wondering which team they would play for, Boston suddenly became their team.
It would be easy for a natural rivalry to develop. Brown, the third pick in the 2016 draft, is a 6' 6", 223-pound swingman. Tatum, the third pick in ’17, is a 6' 8", 210-pound … swingman. Never happened, Brown said. In fact, in 2017, Brown lobbied for Tatum. Days before the draft, Brown was vacationing in Europe. At 4 a.m., Brown’s phone rang. It was Ainge. Brown missed the call. Ainge called again. Brown thought he had been traded. When he picked up, Ainge told him he needed an opinion. The Celtics were discussing Tatum and Josh Jackson—what did Brown think?
“I told him, ‘JT is your guy,’” Brown told Sports Illustrated. “He probably called a lot of people, but he called me as well. I don't know if that gave him any confirmation, but I told him what I thought. I was like, ‘Let’s go.’”
Tatum and Brown had history. The Under Armour camp. A Kevin Durant camp. Tatum recalls taking a recruiting trip to Kansas the same time Brown was there. “It wasn’t like meeting a stranger,” Tatum said. Still, both recognized the importance of building chemistry. “We kind of understood early on that we were going to be relied upon heavily, even as young guys,” Tatum said. “We pushed each other.”
The start was promising. In 2018, the Celtics, down Irving, advanced to the conference finals, pushing Cleveland to seven games. Brown, in his second year, averaged 18 points. Tatum, a rookie, averaged 18.5. The following season, everything unraveled. The return of Gordon Hayward chewed up some of Brown’s minutes. Irving’s return stalled the offense. The locker room grew divided. When Davis asked for a trade at midseason, Tatum and Brown found themselves in trade rumors, again.
“I always try to understand how things work,” Brown says. “Sometimes, the process of building something, it [was] difficult in Boston. I think that JT did a good job and I’ve tried to do a good job at it, too, just focusing on what's important.”
Boston is fully committed to Brown and Tatum. And it has been rewarded for it. Entering the season, the offseason defections of Irving and Al Horford lowered expectations. The Celtics responded with the second-highest winning percentage (.667) in Brad Stevens's seven years on the job. Without defensive stalwarts Horford and Aron Baynes, Boston’s defensive rating improved. Handed more offensive responsibility, Tatum and Brown have thrived.
“I think for [Brown], last year was tough,” Tatum says. “And I think this year with just having a team of new guys, him getting the contract that he deserves, that probably took some weight off his shoulders. He's played incredible this year, and he's took a huge leap in his game and his aggressiveness. I think you can tell. Having to go through all this stuff last year off the court, and I think it's translating. He's been playing exceptionally well this year, and I think he's just going to continue to get better.”
Though physically similar, Tatum and Brown never saw an issue playing together. Tatum entered the NBA a prolific scorer whose defense has taken a quantum leap this season. Brown entered the NBA an athletic defender, a slasher whose perimeter game has continued to improve. “JB is much more physically gifted than I am, so I’m just playing off his athleticism and quick decisions,” Tatum says. “We feed off each other.”
“Their games have some similarities, but in a lot of ways they are more complimentary than not,” Stevens says. “We just always thought, ‘Man, if you have those two guys on the wing for a long time, you got two really good players for a long time.’ So we thought very highly of them. And I think they've just continued to impress. I don't ever want to say that somebody has outperformed expectations, but they certainly have met any. It’s amazing what they've done at young age.”
Meanwhile, the bond between the two continues to strengthen. They have different personalities. Brown is outspoken, evidenced by his role in the NBA’s push for social justice. Tatum is more reserved. But the tumult of last season seems to have brought them closer together. Being teammates, along with Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker with USA Basketball last summer did, too.
“I've spent a lot of time with JT in the last two years,” Brown said. “I’ve gotten to know him very, very well. We have different interests. We respect our different interests. I'm into education and all that stuff. He cares about all that stuff, of course, but that's not necessarily him, you know? The things I like to talk about, he likes to talk about other stuff. We respect each other's differences. He’s still cool to this day.”
“You want to be cool with somebody that you're going to be around,” Tatum said. “You have to see each other every day, that just makes it easier. I think we just focus on the task at hand because you know, this league, this business, you never know if we're on the team together next year or what could happen. So we just try to focus on the opportunity that we have.”
So far, they have. Boston broomed the injury ravaged Sixers out in the first round. They battered the Raptors by 18 in the opener of the second. In the most challenging season in NBA history, the Celtics have emerged as legitimate title contenders. And they seem to believe it. Before the start of the playoffs, Brown and Tatum talked. We can’t take this for granted, Brown said. This is an opportunity—we’ve got to take advantage of it.
“There’s not always going to be chances like this,” Tatum said. “We have to make the most of it.”