2024 NBA Finals: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum aren't new to this game anymore

BOSTON — Jaylen Brown couldn’t get the exact quote correct, but you could put the words together to make a reasonable deduction on where he was going.

“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth” is an African proverb popularized by the Marvel film “Black Panther” six years ago, and Brown used it to describe how he and teammate Jayson Tatum deal with the scrutiny of being Celtics and of being on a contending team that hasn’t yet gotten over the hump.

Tatum chuckled and shot an imaginary left-handed jump shot when a question was asked if he was the most scrutinized player in the playoffs, quipping with a smile, “Think so?” So all of this is on the minds of the Celtics’ two headliners.

For a franchise that hangs only championship banners, a franchise that — in the absence of the feel-good Knicks and drama-chasing Lakers — is always being dissected on daily television, social media and any other place that has discussions centered around the NBA.

It can be exhausting and nerve-racking.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MAY 27: (L-R) Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics and Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics high five during the second quarter in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 27, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Jaylen Brown (No. 7) and Jayson Tatum say they are different players compared to when they made their first NBA Finals appearance. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Or in the case of these NBA Finals, of this playoff run, everything can be so charmed that it presents an opportunity to change the narrative as much as it is one to become a champion.

That’s what Tatum and Brown are staring down on the eve of their second Finals.

“Referencing that, you get to a point where it's, like, you get scrutinized enough for a large part of your career, it becomes normal,” said Brown, going back to the proverb. “Then it just rolls off you. For me, at least, I can say. I don't know if Jayson feels the same way.”

In a way, Tatum was the golden child coming to the Celtics on draft night. Brown, who arrived a year earlier, remembers different feelings — so much so, he was shocked to receive the MVP award for the Eastern Conference finals when the Celtics swept the shorthanded Indiana Pacers.

“It's kind of been that my whole career, in a sense,” Brown said. “Just being booed when you were drafted to saying you were overpaid, saying you were overpaid again. It's been that the whole journey for me.

“It just becomes another headline.”

The headline today is the missed opportunity from 2022, when the Celtics squandered a 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors when Stephen Curry went to a level nobody could contain or match.

In the last three games of that series, Tatum shot 39% from the field and averaged just 21 points. Brown was the lone bright spot in the decisive Game 6 loss at home, scoring 34, but he had five turnovers in each of the last two games — becoming a target for the Warriors’ defense and one for fan ire.

The Celtics wilted beneath that Finals weight and failed to reach June last year in an even more disappointing loss to the Miami Heat in the East finals.

But the path has been laid for them to have fresh bodies, as Kristaps Porziņģis has been cleared from the injury report, and they don’t have playoff attrition either, with a pretty easy road to get here.

“We kind of took it for granted at certain moments,” said Tatum, referencing last year. “We didn't make it to the Finals. This year put things in perspective. I think you can see in our excitement when we won the conference. Obviously, that's not the end all, be all, but it really is tough to get to this moment.”

All that’s left is to dissect some silly things, like Tatum’s alleged facial expression when Brown was awarded that ECF MVP. And the overall discussion over Tatum’s individual offensive play, which certainly seems fair given his numbers, averaging 26 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists but shooting 44.2% from the floor and 29% from 3-point range.

"My mom took it a little tougher than maybe I did. But for me, I don't take it personal, right? Just a long break without NBA basketball, so they had to overanalyze every little thing, have something to talk about,” Tatum said. “Did it get old? Yeah. But, you know, it's the Finals. They wouldn't talk about me if I wasn't good, so ... try to take some positives out of it and change the channel.”

Brown said he’s watched the 2022 Finals in its entirety four or five times since and notes the Celtics are a much different team than the inexperienced one relative to Golden State.

“Yeah, you learn and grow from your experiences, from being a 25-year-old to being a 27-year-old is a big difference,” Brown said. “Yeah, I'm 27 [smiling]. You learn from those experiences.

“We got a different team. We got a different coach, too, as well. We had Ime Udoka; now we have Joe Mazzulla. We had Marcus Smart, Rob Williams; we have Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porziņģis. Different team, different coach two years later makes a pretty big difference.”

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd debunks the experience element of being in the Finals, in a way. When he carried the New Jersey Nets to the Finals in 2002 and 2003, they didn’t lose because of inexperience, as he saw it.

“It's simple: talent. Sometimes you don't have enough talent,” Kidd said. “As I brought up the Lakers and Nets, we were happy to be there, but we just didn't have enough talent to beat Kobe and Shaq. It could be that simple.”

Sometimes experience or confidence can be the difference between winning and losing when teams are evenly matched, or when the supernova is on the other side, in the case of Dallas’ Luka Dončić.

All that matters is the Celtics believe their past failures have prepared them for this, and they believe it’ll help, not hinder.

“I'm a firm believer in everything happens for a reason,” Tatum said. “There's a lesson to be learned in every situation. I do. I do feel a lot different this time, this go-round, two years later. I'm excited for the opportunity for us to get the job done.”