The Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown partnership finally makes sense; now it just needs a title

Tomase: The Tatum-Brown partnership finally makes perfect sense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

There's a reason we spent the early NBA years of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown obsessing over whether they liked each other.

We recognized their potential to restore the Celtics to championship glory. But try as we might, we could never quite make the pieces fit.

They didn't enter the league as Splash Brothers like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, two sharpshooters who played the same breathtaking long-range game. They weren't Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, the alpha and beta who teamed to dominate the frontcourt; if anything, Tatum possessed more of McHale's loosey-goosey personality than Bird's killer instinct. They weren't Jordan and Pippen, first because it's sacrilege to compare anyone to His Airness, but also because Brown didn't exactly embrace that second-banana life.

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And so we watched them reach impressive heights playing together without necessarily Playing Together. Their games often assumed a your-turn, my-turn feel rather than anything complementary. In their first two years together, Tatum recorded more assists to Al Horford than Brown.

We didn't know what to make of them off the court, either. Why didn't Tatum gush about his friendship with Brown like he did, say, Javonte Green? Why didn't they dominate each other's social media? Could we please get one picture of them on a beach somewhere? How about just sharing a damn sandwich?

We forced the narrative because we wanted to tell ourselves an uncomplicated story, that Brown and Tatum would raise a banner through the sheer force of their Wonder Twin powers, one former No. 3 overall pick merely serving as an extension of the other.


It may have taken the better part of six years, but we are finally, belatedly accepting that not only is that story wrong -- but the real one is infinitely better.

The full force of the Jays was on display in Sunday's annihilation of the Sixers that sent Brown and Tatum to their fourth Eastern Conference Finals in six seasons.

Brown provided the inspiration, the determination, and the grit. Three nights earlier he had scolded Celtics fans for the lackluster atmosphere in TD Garden, and he wasn't wrong. The arena voted the most hostile in the NBA by opposing players had lacked energy all postseason, as if the fans couldn't muster the effort to make themselves heard until the Finals.

Well, they raised a ruckus Sunday, and if they needed any extra motivation to stay loud, Brown provided it when he absorbed a James Harden flagrant foul that left him spitting blood, and then dove after a loose ball like Dennis Rodman. The fans roared and the Garden shook, because no one wanted to let Brown down.

He's the intense half of the duo, the one who may not always say what fans, media or teammates want to hear on subjects like Kyrie Irving, but who's nonetheless authentic. He gives the team an edge.


Then there's Tatum. Fans of a certain age want him to be Bird, the supreme competitor who demanded the last shot because he knew no one could stop him. Fans of a more recent vintage might prefer Kevin Garnett, the fiery leader who demanded perfection of his teammates and submission from his opponents.

Both men lived to exert their dominance, but that's not Tatum's way. It's why his signature celebration works better as the "Goodnight Kiss" inspired by his omnipresent son, Deuce, than the "Kiss of Death" we might more easily attribute to assassins like Kobe or Kawhi.

Tatum knows he's good, but it's telling how important it was that his teammates implored and encouraged him to keep shooting after his 1-for-13 start vs. the Sixers in Game 6. His confidence refreshed, Tatum erupted for 16 points in the final four minutes to force the decisive Game 7, where he let his overwhelming talent come out and feast.

He scored a record 51 points in pretty much every possible way, from soaring drives, to off-tackle dives, to Pierce-esque midrange jumpers, to sidestep threes. After his final basket, he raised five fingers and a fist to signify the half-century mark, and the Garden erupted.

"I love being here, I love getting to put on this uniform," Tatum said. "I love getting to play big games and put on big performances in front of them. They feed off of emotion and energy and it's reciprocated. I can't express enough that I just love being here and love playing in front of this crowd."


Brown may not make similar proclamations, but we're just going to have to live with it. He demands the energy, and Tatum basks in it. The pieces fit precisely because they are different. The Celtics need Brown's toughness, not to mention his one-on-one scoring ability, especially with Jimmy Butler and the fearless Miami Heat looming in the conference finals.

Brown plays with the determined stare that channels Tatum's boyhood hero, Kobe Bryant. Tatum, meanwhile, is soft-spoken and more of a people-pleaser. He excels not when he's sociopathically focused, but when he's enjoying himself like a kid at the Y. While Brown gritted his teeth and took elbows to the face on Sunday, Tatum smiled and waved three fingers to the crowd and had the time of his life, at one point screaming, "OH MY GOD!" after another ridiculous basket.

The last week has crystallized exactly who they are, and it finally makes sense. They're not the Splash Brothers or the Bad Boys or the Twin Towers. They're the Two Jays, separate and distinct, and one wouldn't be on the precipice of a title without the other.