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Youth unwasted

The upstart Celtics have a chance to take a 2-1 lead tonight in Game 3.

Boston Celtics Vs Golden State Warriors at Chase Center Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Early in The 2022 NBA Finals, ABC flashed an infographic in Game 1 with a daunting stat: the Warriors boast 123 games of Finals experience to the Celtics’ zero. The result of the opener may not have indicated that stark difference, but Game 2 could not have made it more clear. Golden State’s aging dynasty is attempting to hold off a surging youth movement in Boston.

With Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green well in to their 30’s, they have a wealth of exposure to championship pressure. Six runs to The Finals over the last eight years will do that. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart are barely scratching the surface of their primes. Win or lose, this is only Year One.

At Tuesday’s press availability heading into Game 3, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson joked about searching for “Game 6 Klay” on YouTube to help break out of shooting slumps or harnessing the “power of the mind” to get through these tough times. They were unbothered by questions about Boston’s switching defense strategy or the evolution of the three-point game in their “decade of playoff basketball.”

They’ve seen it all.

It’s not as if Boston hasn’t had their share of games in April and May. They’ve been to the Eastern Conference Finals four out of the last six years. This postseason alone, these upstarts have already slayed dragons, including sweeping the preseason favorite Nets featuring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the defending champion Bucks, and the #1 seeded and vet-laden Heat.

But The Finals are different and the Warriors are different. Repping the West in six out of the last eight Finals isn’t just a line on Golden State’s resume; that’s 10,000 hours of the highest level of basketball under their belt.

In Game 2 after Brown scored thirteen points in the first eight minutes, the 32-year-old Green dialed up the pressure on the 25-year-old Brown; he’d go 1-for-11 the rest of the way. Despite that, the veteran Al Horford has seen growth in Brown’s game and watched his skillset reach the level of his mindset.

“Jaylen came into the league and everybody knew the abilities, the potential he had and all those things. It’s not only his game; it’s his poise, his maturation, him being a leader on the team. He’s one of our leaders. The way he takes care of his body, the work he’s put in, all those things have paid off for him,” Horford said.

“When he got here as a rookie, I don’t know if I could have said any of those things. He’s always been great guy, but he didn’t understand how to be a pro, be in these positions. He had some ability, but the growth I’ve seen from him has been really impressive and he continues to grow and improve. From his understanding of how to play team ball, how to embrace challenges — he has been challenged a lot this year — and he responds.”

Smart called Brown’s “evolution remarkable,” joking that he used to be a chicken with its head cut off before the game finally slowed down for him. And while these compliments are just that, it’s become (at times, painfully) obvious just how young these Celtics are. Whether it’s the high turnover games or the third quarter collapses, there’s a level of maturation that they collectively haven’t met yet.

The media isn’t peppering LeBron James with questions about the effects of Draymond Green’s trash-talking or being a young superstar in this league. Those kid gloves only come out when Boston is at the podium. But to their credit, they’ve dealt with this breakthrough success with a resiliency that is usually reserved for older teams and maybe, this isn’t so much the beginning of their journey but a culmination of what’s already happened.

“When I was drafted in 2017 and Deuce was born in 2017, that was the biggest year of my life. I was starting a new chapter in my career and I just had a child and my mindset was to not sacrifice either,” the always 19 Tatum said of the year he was actually 19 and becoming a role model for young fathers. “I was going to be the best father I could as well as be the best basketball player I could. There was no guideline. There was no exact way to do it. It was all about what was natural.”

As the second youngest player on the All-NBA First Team, Tatum has already seen a lot and shown a wisdom beyond his years. And heading into Game 3, he grasps the magnitude of the moment.

“If you win a championship — they can debate a lot of things — but they can’t debate if you’re a champion.”