NEW YORK -- Kyrie Irving pushed the ball down the court at Barclays Center. There was a minute left on the clock, and the Boston Celtics guard had started a fast break with a steal. At midcourt, the All-Star stopped and whipped a pass ahead to 21-year-old teammate Jaylen Brown. In one smooth motion, Brown caught the ball and flipped it to 19-year-old Jayson Tatum for an alley-oop. Tatum hung on the rim, the Brooklyn Nets called timeout and the young forwards -- each picked No. 3 in the past two drafts --- jumped into each other in celebration.
The dunk was the dagger -- it extended the Celtics' lead to eight points in a game that would end 109-102, increasing their winning streak to 13 games heading into Thursday's matchup with the Golden State Warriors (8 p.m. ET, TNT). As thrilling as it was, though, it should not excite Boston fans more than the mere fact that Brown and Tatum were on the court in that situation, contributing consistently for the team with the league's best record.
Friday will mark one month since Celtics star Gordon Hayward went down with a devastating ankle injury in the season opener, sinking expectations for the team and creating an opportunity for Boston's young players to play more minutes. It's worth noting, however, that both Brown and Tatum were in the starting lineup that night in Cleveland. Brown had limited opportunities early in his first season but made the most of them, improved and earned coach Brad Stevens' trust in the playoffs. Tatum was always going to have a role to play but is clearly ahead of schedule -- as is the team.
"I think Jaylen learned a lot through his first year," Stevens said. "He impacted us in a great way in his first year, especially when he was playing with our starters there in January and February of last year, which is not unusual because when you're playing with guys that you can just blend in and find your role, that's helpful.
"Jayson's come in and kind of been afforded the same opportunity, where he gets to play off of guys that have been there, done that. And when you have guys like Kyrie and Al (Horford), obviously Gordon at the start of the year, that can kind of help those guys find their spots and not too much is asked of 'em as they're growing and learning, I think that's a good way of doing it."
Unlike many top-three picks, neither Tatum nor Brown is being asked to revive a franchise or carry an offense. There is a different kind of challenge, though, in knowing that you will be expected to figure out how to thrive on a winning team. Brown had to keep his confidence high regardless of his playing time as a rookie.
"I just tried to have a maturity level," Brown said. "There's no NBA, so you gotta be on point and stay ready at all times. When your name is called, just expect to do your job the best you can."in the
Brown told Tatum exactly that, and he said that the two of them have "the same mindset" when it comes to learning. The way the rookie has performed, it doesn't look like Tatum is going to have to deal with much uncertainty, anyway. He is averaging 30 minutes, and the only time he played less than 27 was when he injured his ankle against the Los Angeles Lakers.
It is difficult to overstate how impressive Tatum has been. If you watched him at Duke or even at summer league, it was easy to see how gifted he was when creating his own shot. The question was whether or not he could score efficiently right away -- just because he can make midrange contested fadeaways does not mean that he should be targeting those shots. Already, he is receiving compliments for his shot selection, which is mostly made up of clean 3s and good looks (for him, at least) around the basket.
It would be unfair to count on Tatum continuing to shoot 50 percent from the field and 48.9 percent from 3-point range, but it is difficult to not start thinking about just how special he will be with a few more years of seasoning. It essentially took him no time at all to figure out how to use his length to score against physical big men in the paint.
"It's like he's not a rookie when it comes to scoring the ball," Brown said. "He's really advanced in his skill level and what he can do with the ball."
The striking thing about Tatum is just how easy everything looks for him. He is even holding his own on defense, an area that was considered a work in progress at best coming into the season. It is not that he isn't struggling with the adjustment; it is that the parts he has trouble with are the ones the public doesn't get to see.
"What's challenging?" Tatum said. "Playing every other day. Traveling. Sleeping in different beds. That's the toughest part."
Brown, who spoke with CBS Sports at shootaround on Tuesday, spent all of his pregame scrum that evening answering questions about a tweet sent from the Counting Crows' Twitter account. Brown had pizza with frontman Adam Duritz during his one year at the University of California-Berkeley, and, after he scored 18 points in a nail-biter against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, Duritz declared he should run for senate. The easiest explanation for this, aside from the fact they had a mutual friend: Brown loves to pick people's brains. He also counts Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and soccer legend Thierry Henry as mentors.
"I feel like in this league, everybody's super talented," Brown said. "I think mentally is a difference, is a separator. Anytime I can get a mental edge by talking to somebody who has a lot of experience or anything, I want to do it."
"I respect it as well," Brown said. "I think we have mutual respect for each other. JT is going to be a really good player. He works really hard on his game and he just continues to get better each and every day. It's a pleasure working with somebody like that."
In Brooklyn, Stevens said he didn't even realize how big the 2013 Celtics-Nets trade was at the time it was completed. He was in talks with Boston general manager Danny Ainge, and he said he was more concerned with the fact he wouldn't be coaching Pierce and Kevin Garnett. That move drastically changed the courses of both franchises, laying the groundwork for Ainge to eventually bring in Irving, Tatum, Brown and possibly one more core piece in the draft. The Celtics have a new identity this season, and much of it is based on Tatum and Brown manning the forward positions.
"We're not smaller, we're longer," Stevens said, endeavoring to explain how they are first in defensive rating and second in rebounding rate despite rarely playing two big men together. Tatum and Brown have not been asked to replace the departed Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley; they are simply supposed to be themselves. Stevens is using lineups that take advantage of their versatility, and that attribute should define this Boston team for the forseable future.
When Warriors coach Steve Kerr talked about the Celtics' strong start on Tuesday, Brown and Tatum were the first two names he mentioned. Their presence -- that length Stevens was talking about -- should feel familiar to Kerr. The Warriors have used small-ball lineups with traditional small forwards sliding down to the four to drive much of their success over the past four seasons. The Celtics' embrace of redefined positions -- and players like Brown, Tatum and -- gives them space to develop these young talents together.
Kerr went on to call Boston "the team of the future in the East." Given how they've handled everything thrown their way, it is scary to think about what Boston could look like when it is complete.
"The sky is the limit," Brown said when talking about Tatum's potential, but he might as well have been talking about the whole organization. While Irving, Hayward and Horford will lead the way forward, the kids need to keep making progress for the Celtics to firmly establish themselves as championship contenders. At this rate, that might be less a matter of if than when.