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    ESPN’s Tim Bontemps

THE BALL PINGED FROM Jayson Tatum to Dennis Schroder to Al Horford to Marcus Smart, circling the perimeter in quest of the perfect shot.

It was Nov. 19, and the Boston Celtics, who were already up 14 points over LeBron James and the visiting Los Angeles Lakers with just over five minutes remaining, were about to put the final touches on an incredible triumph against their longtime rivals.

Smart drove the baseline, drew two defenders in, leapt, and threw a ball back to a wide-open Tatum in the left corner, just in front of the Lakers bench.

Before the dagger 3 slid through the net, L.A. coach Frank Vogel had already begun marching toward the referee to call timeout, standing 5 feet from Tatum on the baseline.

The play illustrated how things have changed for Boston since November, which started with a fourth-quarter collapse at home against the Chicago Bulls, was followed by Smart criticizing the team’s two young stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and a players-only meeting the following day.

Since then, the Celtics have won eight of their last 11 games heading into Wednesday’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). Over that time, Boston has produced the league’s top defense and is surging back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The arrival of the Nets and the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks, the conference’s two preseason favorites to reach the NBA Finals this season, serves as a stark reminder of where the Celtics stand in the East.

Boston had many years in that rarefied atmosphere, signing and trading for several All-Stars on route to three consecutive trips in the conference finals in four seasons. Despite the amount of money and trade assets expended, the Celtics’ attempt to hoist Banner 18 from the rafters ultimately failed.

Now, when the Celtics try to retool their team around its All-Star wings and return to title contention, they won’t be able to do so with the draft selections and assets they’ve had in the last few seasons.

One league official stated, “I can’t believe this whole period for them hasn’t actually worked.” “They’re stuck in neutral — and maybe moving backwards,” says the narrator.

THE CELTICS LOST IN THE 2018 EAST FINALS TO LEBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the future appeared brighter at the time.

Brown had averaged 19.7 points per game in the series, while Tatum scored 17.9 points in his first year, including a famous dunk over James in Game 7’s fourth quarter.

The fact that Boston did so while both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were in street clothes only added fire to the assumption that the East would eventually shift back in Boston’s favor, particularly after James left for Los Angeles in the summer.

Why-this-homecoming-is-different-for-Kemba-Walker-and-the Wednesday, Nov. 24: 7:30 p.m., Nets vs. Celtics; 10 p.m., 76ers vs. Warriors

76ers at Hawks, 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 3. At 10 p.m., the Clippers will face the Lakers.

All timings are in Eastern Standard Time.

Smart’s remarks prompted a players-only meeting the next day in Orlando, Florida. And, although Boston’s eight victories in its last 11 games have helped to settle things down, these aren’t exactly new problems in Boston.

After Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals in the NBA’s Orlando bubble a little over a year ago, Smart yelled at teammates in the locker room. Prior to departing for Charlotte before last season, Hayward never completely recaptured his pre-injury form and couldn’t remain healthy on a continuous basis. Irving’s last season in Boston was marred by problems both on and off the court, including multiple tense public encounters with players.

“They’ve seemed to be [players] who truly don’t appreciate each other’s success for years,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “In that perspective, the fact that it’s still raising its head is not unexpected.”

Smart’s criticism of Tatum and Brown, on the other hand, was not without substance. The Celtics have emphasized the value of the two as playmakers since training camp started in late September. It hasn’t occurred yet.

Tatum’s assist total has dipped from 4.3 to 3.5 this season, while Brown’s has dropped from 3.4 to 2.5. According to Second Spectrum’s player monitoring statistics, Brown’s potential assists have decreased from 5.4 to 4.7 per game, while Tatum’s has decreased from 8.1 to 7.6 per game. While Brown has been out for the first half of the season due to injury, Tatum’s performance has drew criticism from opponents.

“I don’t believe he cares about winning at this point, and if he does, it will be on his terms. He doesn’t want to win by scoring 15 points. He aims to win with a score of 39.” Jayson Tatum, according to an Eastern Conference assistant coach

According to Second Spectrum, Tatum has taken the seventh-highest proportion of contested 3-pointers this season and ranks 29th in effectiveness among 30 players who have attempted at least 75 solo plays this season.

All of this contributes to the fifth-year winger’s career-worst field-goal (41.2 percent) and 3-point-range (33.3 percent) shooting percentages this season.

An Eastern Conference assistant coach remarked, “Jayson Tatum is about Jayson Tatum.” “I don’t believe he’s interested in winning right now, and if he is, it’ll be on his terms.”

“He doesn’t want to win by scoring 15 points. He aims to win with a score of 39.”

However, the Celtics’ recent performance has them optimistic about the future, particularly when Brown returned to the lineup on Monday against the Houston Rockets after missing eight games due to a hamstring ailment.

“We had some turbulence early on,” Smart said after the Lakers’ triumph. “That’s part of it, just figuring out how to get each other moving. And we’re doing it; things are progressing. We obviously have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re on the right track.”


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Meanwhile, another option for Boston is for Tatum and Brown to continue to develop their skills. The Lakers won the NBA championship in 2020 thanks to two superstars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The LA Clippers, who have tried to accomplish the same with a pair of outstanding wing players in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are a better parallel.

Tatum and Brown, on the other hand, have a long way to go before they can be compared to any of those four players.

When asked what the key will be for Boston to return to championship contention, a Western Conference scout responded, “I would put it simply: Jayson and Jaylen’s ability to make other players better [is vital].” “If they can’t acquire that third man, they’ll have to improve the other guys, which they haven’t demonstrated they can do yet.”

Returning to championship contention, no matter whatever road the Celtics pursue, will not be simple. Meanwhile, they’re concentrating on attempting to improve along the road.

“You expect to win every game you play,” Tatum remarked, “but it never works out that way.” That, I believe, is just a portion of it. With a new coach and a new system, I believe we’re still figuring things out.

“And, as difficult and irritating as it might be at times, I believe that going through these hiccups will benefit you in the long term. It draws you closer and closer together.”

The “the ever red lyrics” is a song by the band “The Everly Brothers”. The song was released in 1960 and has been covered by many artists.

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