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For five years, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been labeled as the future of the Boston Celtics. They are still often billed as Boston’s young guns, with Tatum being 24 years old and Brown 25.

They’ve come into their own this season, but it’s time for the duo to take Boston to the next level. Neither player has reached the NBA Finals after coming close early in their professional careers. Tatum and Brown have each played a key role in turning Boston’s season around this year and getting the Celtics the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

After an ugly start to the season that saw Boston sitting at 25-25 through the first 50 games, the Celtics finished the year on a 26-6 run. Now, it’s up to the two stars to take the Celtics on a deep playoff run. An early postseason exit suffered at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets would erase three months of elite play and be considered a disappointing season.

The Boston Celtics hit rock bottom in a loss to the New York Knicks

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics and Jayson Tatum #0 stand on the court during the third quarter of an NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on January 29, 2022, in New Orleans, Louisiana. | Sean Gardner/Getty Images.

Through the first half of the 2021-22 season, it appeared to be deja vu for the Celtics. One year after they underachieved with a 36-36 record and a first-round playoff exit, it seemed like it was more of the same.

Tatum and Brown struggled early. Frustration set in. Marcus Smart publicly called out Boston’s two stars for their unselfish play. First-year coach Ime Udoka blasted his team on several occasions for its lack of effort. The Celtics could not break free from mediocrity.

Rock bottom may have come Jan. 6 when they dropped their second straight in ugly fashion. A night after Brown missed a last-second layup in a 99-97 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Celtics dropped their second straight in heartbreaking fashion. At the New York Knicks, Boston blew a 25-point lead as RJ Barrett hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer for a 108-105 win, sending the Celtics to 18-21.

Udoka called out his team again, questioning their mental toughness after blowing yet another significant lead. He felt that game may have been the turning point of the season.

“We had lost two or three 19-point leads, lost some games to Cleveland, Milwaukee on Christmas, Chicago early in there, and then the New York game,” Udoka said in early March, per MassLive. “So turning point as far as us getting tired of losing the games that we had built up leads.”

The Celtics won five of their next six games to set the tone for their strong second half.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have to take the Boston Celtics to the next level

Will the real Boston Celtics please stand up? Yes, the Celtics have been the hottest team in the Eastern Conference over the last three months, but is that who they really are? The bigger picture says otherwise.

Last year, the Celtics finished the regular season 36-36. The Brooklyn Nets bounced then in the first round of the playoffs. Boston then went 25-25 through the first 50 games this year, so through 122 regular-season games, Boston was nothing better than a .500 team.

Tatum, Brown, and the Celtics turned things up in the final 32 games, going 26-6 and claiming the No. 2 seed in the conference. A 32-game stretch is too long to be a fluke, but did the Celtics suddenly figure things out?

Sunday will be the start of a huge test for the Celtics, specifically Tatum and Brown. This is their chance to take this team under their wings and show they can be the leaders they’re expected to be.

The Celtics face a rematch with those same Nets who sent them home early last season. It’s a time to show the rest of the NBA they can play at a high level when the spotlight is on.

Boston will only go as far as Tatum and Brown take them. Expectations are high. Should the Nets knock the Celtics out early again, the 2021-22 Celtics season will be a disappointment, and that surging second half will be forgotten.

The Celtics aren’t going in with an underdog mentality against the Nets

The Celtics know what they are up against. Had they rested their players and lost their regular-season finale against the Memphis Grizzlies, they wouldn’t be matched up with the dangerous Nets.

Instead, the Celtics played their game. They took care of business, earning the No. 2 seed. They know what’s ahead of them, and they are ready for the challenge.

“It’s a team we know well,” Udoka told reporters, per CLNS Media, “obviously playing them last year in the playoffs. It’s a little bit different as far as personnel, but the head of the snake is those two guys (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant).”

Udoka knows the Nets are dangerous, but his team won’t be backing down.

“I wouldn’t say we’re going in with an underdog mentality,” he said. “We know who we are. In order to win, you have to win against good teams at some point.”


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