BOSTON — Luka Dončić scored 53 of Dallas’ 111 points on Monday, and scored 60 in an all-time comeback against the Knicks earlier this year. Nikola Jokić is posting greater production than his previous two MVP seasons and the Nuggets can hardly survive when he’s off the floor. Jayson Tatum faces stiff competition for the trophy, an all-too-familiar task for another Celtics legend.
Paul Pierce reminded CLNS Media/CelticsBlog in an exclusive interview at his pre-game Bushmills Irish Whiskey event that Tatum is battling for a bigger honor, one that would put him on path to surpass his own career and even other legends like Larry Bird and Bill Russell.
“I’m seeing his game mature right before our eyes. He’s a lot stronger. He’s playing with a lot more confidence. The way he’s passing the ball. He’s doing a better job getting to the free throw line. He’s rebounding the ball at a high level. I already know what he’s doing as a scorer,” Pierce said. “If he can continue to play like this, sky’s the limit for him. He should be able to bring home that MVP trophy. More importantly, he’d rather bring home a championship than an MVP trophy ... he could end up the greatest Celtic to ever put on that uniform. I’m telling you, that’s what I see. He’s got that type of potential.”
Pierce left potential as the caveat. He still believes Tatum and company should’ve claimed the 2022 title and watched the Celtics’ star struggle starting 2-for-9 against the Lakers on Saturday night. Tatum admitted the fatigue he’s feeling as he ranks in the top-5 in minutes played this season while nursing multiple left hand and wrist injuries.
A deeper problem afflicted the Celtics during their recent losing streak that almost stretched to four if not for a blown call on Tatum fouling LeBron James: apathy. Boston dropped three straight to Orlando and Indiana following a historic start. They fell into the bottom half of the league in scoring since November. Absences hurt the team, but Pierce sensed them playing down to competition. The Celtics currently sit with a .700 win percentage, below the .800 rate Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s 2008 squad won at.
“Usually, when you play in these long 82-game seasons, you can get bored at times,” Pierce said. “Their goal is on the championship, so I know they’re like, ‘we can’t wait for the playoffs,’ but the one thing I’ll tell them, and I continue to say this and I said this on the podcast, they can’t get bored with the process to get back to where they need to go. So, I’m saying they can’t get bored with the regular season. They’ve got to play each and every night, build up until they get to the playoffs and keep chopping wood. That tree’s gonna fall eventually, but they can’t get bored with the process.”
Joe Mazzulla has repeated a similar line in huddles and press conferences through the first half of the season. Boston’s record leads the league, and Pierce believes in their ability to win the championships despite the occasional lapses. Even the ‘08 squad stumbled numerous times, particularly on the road, through the four rounds of the playoffs before beating LA and earning a title and stature in Celtics history. Think of what multiple Larry O’Briens could do for Tatum.
The thought that Pierce’s Big Three would only walk away with that lone title still shocks many Celtics fans years later. Not even an NBA Finals return is promised for this young group that’s already on the verge of making a difficult decision on one of its core young players next summer. Jaylen Brown becomes a free agent in 2024. Pierce’s Celtics saw Ray Allen walk after crushing defeats between 2009 and 2012.
For now, one decade later, the Celtics have built a roster that stacks up with the first Big Three team in terms of wins in a calendar year, 2022 coming second to 2008 in recent team history.
“I don’t think we could really compare the two. It’s two different styles,” Pierce said. “They’re a great offensive team. Our team was really built on defense. We didn’t score as many points as this team, we didn’t shoot as many threes, and they got more scorers than we did. So, it’s a different team. They’re way farther ahead of us offensively. We were an all-time defense, though.”
Despite the differences in team makeup and strategy, Tatum and Pierce are and were the focal points. They both took their time embracing the responsibility of leadership. Tatum is on that journey now and Pierce hopes to one day document his own. “It’s coming, man,” Pierce said. “I’m in talks right now about doing my doc. I got a little sizzle so far. So, I’m pitching it right now.”
Until then, he’s hosting a Showtime podcast alongside Garnett and living in Los Angeles and planning more pre-game events in the Boston area throughout the season. He’s still a presence that lights up TD Garden, arriving early to a Finals game last summer to massive applause. Let’s just hope that #34 is back in town again this coming July.