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Analysis: This NBA Finals will show if the Celtics are ready for pressure

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown said all the right things after the Boston Celtics fell in the NBA Finals two years ago. They said losing that series to the Golden State Warriors was going to be part of their journey. A learning experience. Fuel for the future.

They won’t be able to say those things if they don’t win the title this time around.

Fans around Boston seem confident in their team, but with a talented Mavs squad coming to town, this series will be anything but a breeze.

The pressure in the 2022 finals was on Golden State — the team that had been there many times before, and not on a Celtics team that largely was on that stage for the first time. But now, Boston is the favorite. A sizable one at that over the Dallas Mavericks, according to BetMGM Sportsbook, which means the Celtics will feel a level of pressure that wasn’t on the shoulders of Brown and Tatum two years ago.

“I give a lot of credit to that team, the Warriors. I think we understood what it took to get there. They understood what it took to get over the hump,” Tatum said Wednesday. “That was really a special team that didn’t make many mistakes, obviously well-coached. They’ve just been there before. In some of those tough moments, when I go back and look, you can tell that they had been there before. It was a lesson to be learned.”

Clearly, Boston did some learning.

From the start of the 2022-23 season until now, including playoffs, the Celtics are a league-best 144-54. No player in the league has scored more points in that span than Tatum. There are seven teams that lost more games this season than the Celtics have lost in the last two seasons combined. And in a league where a 1-2 punch of great players is now basically a prerequisite to winning, Brown and Tatum might be the top duo.

“They learned something,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “You could see they’re playing at a high level right now, winning 64 games, the best team in the NBA. To be penciled in at the beginning of the season, that puts a little pressure or stress because you’re supposed to be here. They fulfilled that.

“But that tandem, they’re playing at an extremely high level and we got our work cut out. But they’ve been here. Some of us for the Mavs have been here, some of us haven’t. We’re going to embrace that and find a way to hopefully win a series.”

Kidd lost in his first two trips to the finals as a player, he and the then-New Jersey Nets getting swept by the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers in 2002 and then falling in six games to the San Antonio Spurs a year later. He was with Dallas for its 2011 finals win over Miami, a series where the Heat simply didn’t handle the pressure that came with having LeBron James playing for a title in his first season there.

“We just didn’t have enough talent to beat Kobe and Shaq. It could be that simple,” Kidd said. “But nerves sometimes play a part, too. Just the human side of things.”

The NBA likes to send young, rising players to the finals as reporters for a day or two. Houston’s Jabari Smith Jr. was at media day in Boston on Wednesday and used his moment with the microphone at a news conference with Tatum to ask a question that virtually nobody else in the room could ask.

“What would you say to somebody going into their third year who hasn’t lived up to the expectation that has been set on him?” Smith asked, referring to himself.

Tatum knew exactly where he was coming from.

“We come into the league at such a young age, and they want us to be perfect right away. It’s just part of growing up. You’re still growing up. I’m still growing up,” Tatum said. “It’s a process, right? Nothing was accomplished overnight. I think you’ll find a value in tough times, the ups and downs of just what life brings you. I sound like a real old person right now.”

Tatum and the Celtics went through those tough times in 2022. Went through them again last year when they lost a Game 7, at home, to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. How the Celtics fare in this series against the Mavs will show how much value they’ve found in that process. It’ll show if they are ready for the pressure this time

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