Basketball is supposed to be fun. It’s entertainment, meant to carry us away from the pressures of work, bills, and diaper changes. Until it doesn’t.
When I’m watching this iteration of the Celtics, the team that’s now the odds-on favorite to win the championship, I find myself thinking about December 30th, 2016. That date probably means nothing to you on first blush, but it was important to me and probably you, too. Three friends and I hopped in my seafoam green 2009 Chevy Malibu and got on Route 2 in Gardner.
We were heading east, to Alewife station. The excitement bubbling up in us as we took the red line towards The Garden. We were going to watch Isaiah Thomas play basketball.
And boy did we really get to watch Isaiah Thomas play basketball. This was the night he eviscerated the Miami Heat. He went for 52, twenty-nine in the fourth quarter. Twenty. Nine.
By the end of the fourth quarter, I was so hoarse from cheering I sounded like the long-lost triplet of Patty and Selma. That night was pure, unfiltered basketball joy. With 37 seconds left, IT hit an insane 3 to put the game away. As the initial roar faded to a cheerful din, I turned to the 10-year-old kid and his father behind us and just said, “you’ll never see anything like this again.” I was wrong. Until I wasn’t.
Jayson Tatum, on several occasions, has done something just like that. Perhaps most memorably dropping 60 in an absurd comeback against the Spurs. Or when he had 50 against Brooklyn in the playoffs. Or when he had 46 in Milwaukee to save the Celtics’ season. Tatum has had some of the most dominant and memorable games in Celtics history, but one thing’s missing. The joy.
It’s all Tatum’s fault. He’s too good at too young an age for rationality to win out. What he’s done at the age of 25 isn’t normal. Chris Paul is widely regarded as an all-time great; he’s been to two conference finals. Can you imagine how Pelicans fans would talk about Zion if he took the Warriors to seven games in his rookie year? Paul Pierce never made an All-NBA First Team. Tatum has two (assuming he gets it this year).
If there’s an unwritten contract between fans and players, you be successful and we will be behind you 100%, Tatum has held up his end of the bargain so well that it’s warped our expectations. He’s supplied so much addicting product, winning, that we absolutely cannot get enough. I’m writing this after a masterclass performance in which he dropped 39-11-5 with 1 turnover, 1 block, 1 steal, on 56/80/87.5 shooting. And yet, I can’t help but feel let down. Maybe not by him specifically, but by the team he’s responsible for, a responsibility he accepted after Game 5 against Atlanta.
Jayson Tatum has ruined my expectations.
And that’s the key to it all. The reason Isaiah brough so much joy is because he wasn’t shackled with success. He was the leader of a plucky underdog of misfit toys led by the boy genius Brad Stevens. Coming off a loss in the first round, we didn’t expect much more from them; we just wanted to enjoy them competing. And we did. Over and over again, Isaiah and the punk rock Celtics exceeded our expectations. They shattered what we thought a team led by a 5’8” point guard could accomplish, and we loved him, and that team, for it.
Fast forward a few years, and Jayson Tatum has the benefit of another homegrown star at his hip, a veteran presence and young athletic anomaly in the middle, the DPOY at point guard, and role players so good you can hardly call them that. We expect greatness, we expect perfection, and anything short of that is a letdown.
It’s, frankly, an unreasonable standard and I know that, but I can’t help it. I want to feel that joy of watching Isaiah Thomas hang 52 on the Heat or 53 on his sister’s birthday against the Wizards again. But it’s not possible with where I’ve set the expectations for this team. Anything less than a blowout is a letdown, and rationally, I know that’s not fair, but that’s where we are.
I should be enjoying the rise of a 25-year-old superstar and his 26-year-old co-star who are carving their names in NBA lore, but my expectations are clouding the fun. Every deep playoff run is more basketball to watch, and those years move very, very quickly. One minute you are watching Antoine and Paul comeback against the Nets, and the next minute you’re hoping a bearded man in a Sixers jersey doesn’t hit a dagger three in crunch time. “Life comes at you fast” is an overused and oversimplified trope, but sometimes it’s spot on.
Tatum, and this version of the Celtics, are being graded on a curve, one that the requires you to ascend to the levels of Bill Russell and Larry Bird to get an A. TD Garden is the household where Bs aren’t good enough, and we can only hope Jayson, Jaylen, and the Celtics live up to that. Until they do.
Celtics in 6.