But now, with Gordon Hayward signing with the Charlotte Hornets in free agency and Kemba Walker out indefinitely with his ongoing left knee issues, for the Celtics to remain as successful as they have been in recent seasons Tatum and Brown can’t just be a dynamic young duo — they have to play like one of the best tandems in the league, period.
Wednesday night, Tatum and Brown showed that they’re capable of doing just that, combining to score 63 points — including Tatum’s absurd banked-in 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds to go — to beat the Milwaukee Bucks 122-121 here at TD Garden.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Jeff Teague, after playing his first game as a Celtic, of playing alongside the two young stars. “Two talented guys who are really team-oriented and they make the game easy for me and I think it makes it easy for our team.
“I’m happy to be alongside them.”
Given how many things Tatum and Brown have already been through in their careers, it is easy to forget that they are still in their early 20s. But despite that the weight of expectations is on them — and deservedly so. Tatum made his first All-Star appearance last season, received a maximum contract extension this offseason and appears poised to be one of the league’s best scorers for the next decade. Brown, meanwhile, is in the first year of his own $100 million-plus extension, and is a popular pick to be a first-time All-Star this year after falling just short of that honor last season.
They both played like players worthy of that praise Wednesday night. While Tatum struggled with his shot, finishing 12-for-28 (though he went 6-for-13 from 3-point range), he hit several tough shots in the final minutes even before his circus shot fell through the net.
Brown, on the other hand, was the best player on the court for much of the night, getting to his spots with ease time after time as he finished with 33 points, five rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes.
“It’s a new year, new season, new responsibilities,” Brown said, “so I’m just trying to accept that challenge. And I’m looking forward to this year.”
The way Boston played against Milwaukee came as a bit of a surprise after pitiful performances against two other East contenders, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, in their first two preseason games. But if Tatum and Brown can keep playing like this, the Celtics will have time to settle out their rotation, and potentially grow into more depth coming from a very inexperienced bench, while they wait for Walker to return.
• In addition to the play of Brown and Tatum, the Celtics got a massive boost from their two veteran additions this offseason — point guard Jeff Teague and big man Tristan Thompson.
With Walker out, Teague’s ability to operate an offense off the bench has paid immediate dividends. He was the lone bright spot in the team’s two preseason games, and followed that up by scoring 19 points to go with four assists and no turnovers in 25 minutes Wednesday night.
On a team in desperate need of scoring beyond its two young stars, if Teague can be a reliable offensive option off the bench, it would be a huge development for Boston.
Thompson, meanwhile, missed both preseason games with a strained hamstring, and was on a minutes limit in the low 20s, but he finished with 12 points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes and provided exactly the kind of interior strength and toughness that Boston lacked in its loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals back in September.
“It felt good to get back out there,” said Thompson, who hadn’t played in an NBA game since March, when he was still a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. “Especially with a team that has high expectations and a team that wants to compete and win a lot of ball games.”
• While the Bucks were disappointed with the result, they were thrilled with the contributions they got from Jrue Holiday in his first game in a Milwaukee uniform.
In his first game as a Buck, Holiday was exactly what he has been throughout his career, providing 25 points and six rebounds while playing outstanding defense against Tatum, forcing him into one difficult shot after another throughout the game.
But even beyond his defense, the thing that stood out about Holiday’s performance was his willingness to take — and make — a critical 3-pointer over Celtics center Daniel Theis with 1:10 remaining that briefly gave Milwaukee the lead.
“It’s just indicative of kind of the talent, the confidence, that Jrue plays with, that he brings to the table,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “So I think we’re really excited about what he did tonight, and we feel like he’s just getting started with us.”
Confidence — particularly in a critical moment at the end of a game against a rival opponent — was an emotion rarely, if ever, used to describe the man Holiday replaced, Eric Bledsoe, in those situations. Bledsoe’s inability to provide offense in late and close situations down the stretch was a big part of why the Bucks fell short in each of the past two playoffs.
That’s why the Bucks paid a king’s ransom in draft picks — three first-round selections plus two pick swaps — moving forward to acquire Holiday, and he immediately showed what he’s capable of.
“That’s what I play for,” Holiday said. “Just taking the shot. When it comes down to it, this is basketball. We’ve played it most of our lives. Just being able to take that shot in a big moment … it feels good. That’s why we play the game.”
That approach is something the Bucks hope will translate into wins in the postseason this time around that would’ve been losses in the past.
• In addition to the draft picks, the other thing Milwaukee lost in acquiring Holiday was depth. It was a calculated gamble by the Bucks — a hope that another All-Star caliber player would provide the difference in the postseason, after the depth that churned out one regular season win after another the past two seasons wasn’t good enough.
That very well may be the case. But that lack of depth felt pronounced in this game.
Milwaukee’s starting five — Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez — was every bit of what it was expected to be in terms of their performance. The bench, however, was nonexistent, as the Bucks’ second unit shot a combined 4-for-13 from the field and was outscored 34-12 by its Celtic counterparts.
Some of those issues will be mitigated by the return of veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, who sat out with a calf injury. But Milwaukee’s other two noteworthy free agent signings this offseason, Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes, combined to go 2-for-9 from the field, and Portis was a team-worst minus-16 in 16 minutes.
As the Bucks progress through the season, how that depth manifests itself will bear watching.
• Another potential ramification of that lack of depth is something is Antetokounmpo getting his way on one matter: the subject of playing more minutes.
The past two seasons, the Bucks have fastidiously held Antetokounmpo down close to 30 minutes per game in the regular season, only to then ramp him up in the playoffs. But in Wednesday night’s game, he, Middleton and Holiday all played 36 or more minutes.
After the game, Budenholzer conceded those three guys will be playing more minutes this season than he’s typically had players play in the past. And, when Antetokounmpo was asked about it, he couldn’t contain his excitement.
“I’m excited to play more minutes,” he said. “I want to play. I don’t think there’s a player in the NBA that doesn’t want to play more minutes. But yeah, it’s going to help me get in shape. We’ve practiced a week and a half and I’ve played two preseason games. I want to play games. I want to work on my game, I don’t want to work on my game against only my teammates. I want to work on my game against other players and see what I can do, see how I can get to my spots, how can I find my teammates, and the more you’re on the floor the better you learn, the better you’re able to get to your spots.
“I’m just excited because this is going to be a build-up, because when you go to the playoffs, the playoffs is 71 games away. The playoffs is six months away from now, but at the end of the day I take it day by day and this is going to put me in position to be ready and physically, mentally, and if I have to play 45 minutes [in the playoffs], I’m going to be ready.”
Antetokounmpo said the topic of playing more minutes is something he personally addressed with Budenholzer this offseason — in part, as he said, to better prepare him for the rigors of higher minute loads in the playoffs. If he spends the season playing, say, 35 minutes a game, it makes a jump to 40, or 42, in the playoffs more reasonable.
Like everything else the Bucks have done over the past few months, it is a decision geared toward having more success in the postseason. Now, they’ll only have to wait another six months to see if they all pay off.