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Celtics recognize that Jayson Tatum is the guy to lead them

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Tatum’s teammates see Tatum’s ascendancy to stardom

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Boston Celtics disappointing loss at the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon, the Cs were down, but far from out. To a man, Boston’s players owned that they were disappointed to have lost, but encouraged by their play. The Lakers are one of the NBA’s best teams and tough to take down in the Staples Center. There’s no shame in a two-point road loss in LA.

But it wasn’t quotes about the game that stood out. Those were good, but it was the standard “Make a few more plays and we win” sort of stuff. It was two quotes about a Celtic on a meteoric rise that stood out.

Jayson Tatum went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and for the umpteenth time this season, Tatum proved he belongs in that sort of lofty company. Tatum tied his career-high with 41 points, including 18 points in each of the second and third quarters. Tatum shot 12-of-20 from the field, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc, and 13-of-15 at the free throw line. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers threw multiple double-teams and traps at Tatum to force him to give up the ball, and time and time again, Tatum made the right read instead of forcing shots himself.

After the game, Jaylen Brown was asked about Tatum’s play and said: “Jayson Tatum has reached a new height. Superstar level. We’ve got to go with him.”

Read that quote and who said it again.

Considering Brown’s own place in the Boston Celtics organization as an up-and-coming star, that’s some heady stuff. It also says a lot about Brown’s ability to recognize time and place and what’s happening with Tatum right now.

Veteran Gordon Hayward, who Boston committed a full max contract to, said about Tatum: “It’s tough. You have those big nights; we’ve got to come through for him.”

Read that one again too.

Hayward is a veteran. He’s been around a while. He signed with the Celtics with every intention of being the face of the franchise. We all know what happened. We all know just how great Hayward has bounced back. He’s played most of this season like a guy who could be the face of the Celtics.

But this Celtics team right now is going as far as Jayson Tatum will take them. And his teammates recognize it too. That’s a far cry from a year ago when not-so-veiled shots were lobbed at Tatum and Brown, and a few others, from the then supposed face of the franchise.

Even though everyone has long-since moved on from last season, it’s hard to not think back to just how different things are. A year ago, following a disappointing loss, the post-game quotes are probably a long, rambling soliloquy with more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. That monologue would have both managed to say that Boston’s young players don’t know how to win, and that they should defer to their veteran leaders. Everyone would have also been told that the young players don’t know how to win when it matters, while at the same time that far too much importance is put on winning basketball games.

Quite simply, every Celtics loss last year (and even some wins!) was an exhausting post-game experience. Unless you possess a PHD in nonsensical psychobabble that contradicts itself while also making you feel small, you never quite understood what was being said. And for a while, the fanbase divided itself into a camp that believed the young players were the problem, with the other side wanting to build around the kids and jettison the veteran mercenaries that were blocking the upstart youngsters.

This year, the steadiness of Hayward and Kemba Walker are perfect complements to the frenetic supernova starbursts of Tatum and Brown. There’s no jealousy. Just beautiful team-oriented basketball that’s fun to watch and easy to root for. Both Hayward and Walker have been stars of their own teams, but they have no issue letting Tatum and Brown shine. It’s not about who makes plays, but how those plays are made.

On a non-star level, Enes Kanter’s old-school bully-ball complements Daniel Theis’ all-around tactical game and Robert Williams’ jump-out-of-the-gym athletic style. Marcus Smart is the perfect mentor to Grant Williams, as both don’t have the greatest physical gifts, but possess a preternatural ability to understand what’s happening on the floor before it happens.

Mostly, this year’s Celtics just fit together better than either of the last two years did. That’s on and off the court. Not once has this group ever sought to make it about themselves. Even better, after tough losses, we haven’t had a single Boston player call out a teammate.

The best teams play for each other. They possess a high amount of care factor. When times are tough, they lift each other up. When times are good, they celebrate the next guy’s success more than their own. And the best teams know who the guy is. The guy who you can throw the ball to and trust that he’s going to make a play for you.

The Celtics lost a tough game on Sunday. That’s all the standings will show. But if you look and listen, you can see that Boston has won so much more. Even in a loss, the Celtics recognize how close they are. And they know just the guy to take them there. And that guy knows he can do it. But more importantly, he knows he can’t do it alone. That’s night and day from a year ago.