Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s Relationship Is Fine, but Their Pairing Could Elevate With a Title

With the 2022 NBA Finals loss still fresh, the Celtics’ elite duo is at a critical juncture in their careers.
Jayson Tatum and guard Jaylen Brown are aiming for their first NBA championship.
Jayson Tatum and guard Jaylen Brown are aiming for their first NBA championship. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There are no issues between Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Pressure? Well … 

Last week, the four-letter network made waves by reigniting a long-dormant debate about Tatum and Brown’s relationship. Only there is no debate. Tatum and Brown are fine. Always have been. They have known each other since high school, when they competed at an Under Armour camp. They are, as Brown noted last week, “polar opposites.” But whenever the trade rumors swirled around Brown over the years, Tatum has backed him. When Tatum won a gold medal at the 2021 Olympics, Brown celebrated with him. In ’22, while reporting a Sports Illustrated cover story on the Boston Celtics, I asked Tatum’s longtime trainer, Drew Hanlen, if he had any thoughts on the Tatum-Brown relationship.

“Jayson brags about how good Jaylen is,” Hanlen told me. “How there aren’t many players he would trade straight up for him. Any narrative that they didn’t like each other, that they can’t win together is totally made up.”

Indeed, they can win together. Boston has made six conference finals in the Tatum-Brown era. Two NBA Finals. Four seasons of 50-plus wins. In a league that covets elite two-way wings, the Celtics have a pair of them.

Still, Boston’s duo has reached a critical juncture. The 2022 Finals defeat was disappointing. But, in a way, excusable. The Golden State Warriors were elite. They had championship-level talent and years of experience with it. Did the Celtics gag away a potential 3–1 series lead in Game 4? Maybe. More accurate would be Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors went out and took it. 

“This time, this go-around is a lot different,” Tatum said. “You don’t always get a second chance, so really just looking at it as a second chance and trying to simplify things as much as we can.”

Curry shoots the ball against Tatum and Brown during Game 5 of the 2022 NBA Finals.
Curry shoots the ball against Tatum and Brown during Game 5 of the 2022 NBA Finals. / Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Added Al Horford, “The first time [in 2022], it felt like a roller coaster, just a lot going on, increased coverage in media, all the responsibilities we had and everything that came with it. This time around, we all have an understanding. We know what things are like and I feel like we’ll be able to manage it better.”

This year, there are no Warriors. The Dallas Mavericks are good. They have Luka Doncic, a superstar. Kyrie Irving, a premiere wingman. P.J. Washington, Dereck Lively II and Derrick Jones Jr. can play. The defense has improved considerably since midseason acquisitions to acquire Washington and Daniel Gafford. While the Celtics were cruising through the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers, the Mavericks were muscling out the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Still, the Celtics are heavy favorites. They are six deep with All-Star–level talent. Jrue Holiday and Derrick White are elite defenders. Kristaps Porzingis, who appears to be tracking toward a Game 1 return, is a terror on both ends of the floor. Horford, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Monday, is ageless.

And they have Tatum and Brown. This has not been a flawless postseason run. There have been some clunkers. Tatum’s 7-for-17 performance in a Game 2 loss to Cleveland. Brown’s 0-for-6 three-point stat line in the same game. But the Celtics are 12–2 in the playoffs, with Tatum (26.0 points on 44.2% shooting) and Brown (25.0 points, 54.1% shooting) leading the way. 

Now, though, comes the real test. The scrutiny of Tatum and Brown’s relationship is unfair. “The whole thing about that really pisses me off,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. Raising expectations for their play is not. Curry and Thompson won’t be remembered for conference championships. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray aren’t defined by 50-win seasons. If Tatum and Brown want to be regarded as an elite duo, they need to win a title.

For years, Tatum has been among the NBA’s most scrutinized stars. He’s a great scorer … just not always in the clutch. He’s a strong defender … just not one of the best. Even as Tatum’s game has grown—in the post, at the rim, in his playmaking—he’s often viewed as a cut below the NBA’s best.   

Brown, too. Brown signed the richest contract in NBA history last summer. He responded with a season (23.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, a career-best 3.6 assists) worthy of it. In Boston, Brown will always be the second star. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be one of the best wings in the game. 

Mazzulla and Brown understand the magnitude of what is at stake in the 2024 Finals.
Mazzulla and Brown understand the magnitude of what is at stake in the 2024 Finals. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

“As long as my team knows my value, my city knows my value, my family, that’s all I really care about,” Brown said. “But I like to set my hat on just being a versatile two-way wing [who] can do both at any point in time.”

Tatum and Brown understand the stakes. A series win springboards them into rarified air, a tandem with a title, and a chance to win more. A loss opens them up for criticism and more questions about whether the pairing really works. 

“I think [it’s unfair] being compared to each other,” Mazzulla said. “They’re different. And you see other duos around the league don’t have to go through that. And it’s because of the platform that they have. It’s because they’ve been so successful their entire careers. They’ve been able to long stand success at a high level.”

Now it’s time to do it at the highest. Two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of a Game 6 loss, Tatum slumped in his locker. In TD Garden, the visiting locker room is directly across from the home one, making the roar of the Warriors’ celebration unavoidable. Walking to his car that night, Tatum could hear the Champagne-soaked afterparty still raging. He vowed never to forget that feeling. He swore he would never let an opportunity like that slip away again. Two years later, Tatum, still alongside Brown, will get that chance.


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Chris Mannix

CHRIS MANNIX

Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix has boxed with Juan Manuel Marquez, played guard in the NBA's D-League and even tried his hand at bull riding at the Sankey Rodeo School in Martin, Tenn. The latter assignment left him with a bunch of bruises and a fractured collarbone. "I liked all the first-person experiences, but fighting Juan was my favorite assignment for SI," says Mannix. "It was a tremendous experience that required brutal training and introduced me to a fear I never knew I had." Mannix has covered the NBA since he arrived at SI in 2003. He currently writes columns and profiles in the magazine and for SI.com and also serves as SI's NBA draft expert. Among the NBA stars he has profiled: Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Andrei Kirilenko. As a teenager Mannix was a locker room attendant with the Boston Celtics for eight seasons (1995-2003) and covered high school sports for the Boston Globe. "Working for the Celtics was like attending a different fantasy camp every game. I spent pregames D'ing up the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and yes, Michael Jordan. Last time I went one-on-one with MJ he beat me 48-0. I got one shot off … and it was blocked." Boxing is also one of Mannix's specialties. He has reported for SI on several championship fights, annually hands out SI.com's boxing awards and writes the website's "Inside Boxing" column. Mannix won the 2012 Boxing Writers Association of America's awards for Best Feature over 1,750 words and Best Feature under 1,750 words. In addition to his duties at SI, Mannix serves as host of The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio (Sundays 6–9 p.m. ET) and is a co-host of Voices of the Game, with Newy Scruggs every Wednesday from Noon–3 p.m. ET. In addition, Mannix is a ringside reporter for Epix and Fight Night on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a regular guest and fill-in host on The Dan Patrick Show and The Crossover on NBC Sports Network. He also regularly appears on sports radio shows across the country, including weekly appearances in Miami, Orlando and Salt Lake City.  Mannix received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Boston College in 2003 and graduated from Boston College High School in 1998 (which makes him a double Eagle). He resides in New York City.