A few weeks before the NBA postponed its season in March, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum dropped 41 points at Staples Center in a last-possession loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
After the game, LeBron James awarded the NBA’s ultimate seal of approval when he posted on Instagram a shot of himself and Tatum, with each looking intently at the court as they waited to check in to the nationally televised matchup.
“That boi to the left of me is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM!! Keep going,” James wrote as the caption, adding the hashtag, “#YoungKing.”
Although any narrow loss is dispiriting, a further signal that Tatum is poised to be one of the preeminent stars of his generation is happy compensation. Nearly six months later, the Absolute Problem leads a team that is once again in the Eastern Conference mix, as the Celtics have continued their forward momentum since breaking ground on their rebuild in 2013.
They’re on their third All-Star point guard in that span, steady veteran Kemba Walker, but they have a largely young roster without the age and experience of Milwaukee or Toronto.
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The Celtics are still developing, still refining their roles in an evolving offense and, in the occasions of their pair of dynamic wings, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, still learning which tools to leave in the toolbox.
They’re rounding into form, and Tatum might find himself on an All-NBA team as soon as this summer.
The extent to which the team can accelerate that growth will likely determine the Celtics’ postseason fortunes.
Now 2-2 in the Orlando, Florida, bubble after a 149-115 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics have established over the course of the season that they do a lot of things well — not surprising for a team that ranks in the top five in offense and defense.
As with any squad, there are natural tension points. This is a good thing because team-building and improvement — both individual and team — are accomplished in large part by problem-solving.
The Celtics’ uneven performance during the first week of the bubble is of limited concern. Walker continues to work his way back from a knee injury — he sat out Wednesday night’s back-to-back — and Stevens emphasized after Tuesday’s loss that the careful management of Walker’s minutes in Orlando is a reflection more of caution than concern.
The front office’s objective in accumulating a trove of draft picks over the course of their rebuild was always simple, even if their procurement was complex: Turn those assets into championship-caliber stars. With Tatum and Brown, the Celtics are making good on that goal. The summer of 2020 will be the biggest test yet.
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