Jayson Tatum’s defining moment awaits him in NBA finals | Vautour

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BOSTON — Almost won’t be good enough this time.

Jayson Tatum is no longer a young star on the rise. He’s not getting his feet wet or gaining experience anymore.

The Celtics’ 26-year-old wing is a superstar, the best player on the NBA’s best team. He’s in his prime, in the heart of his wide-open championship window.

If Boston beats Dallas in the NBA Finals, which start Thursday at TD Garden, the perception of Tatum will change. He’d not only be the bell cow on a championship team, but the latest Celtics great to lead the storied franchise to a title. That’s weighty stuff.

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If Boston loses, regardless of how Tatum plays, his reputation will be dented. LeBron James battled that before breaking through. Reaching the finals multiple times and not winning becomes a star player’s identity. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not.

It’s strange to think about legacy-shaping for someone as young as Tatum is, but that’s the reality of this series for him.

At Finals media day on Wednesday, Tatum was reflective and introspective about his career and how he’s perceived. But he said his motivation isn’t that layered right now.

“My motivation is I just love to win. I know how hard it is to get to the Finals. You think that you’re young, if you’ve been once, you’ll continue to keep going,” Tatum said. “We realized that last year. We took it for granted at certain moments. 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.

“I think right now just staying present in the moment. I’m not thinking about what it would mean for my legacy or anything like that,” he said. “Just excited to play some basketball after this long break and go out there and try to get the job done.”

But prodded a little, Tatum admitted he knows Celtics teams and players are defined by whether or not they lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“We only hang NBA championship banners, right? Seventeen of them. Some of the greatest players to ever play this game wore this uniform. All of us are honored to follow in their footsteps, the way they paved for us to live out our dream,” he said. “If you want to be one of the greats to put on this uniform, every great before you won a championship. That’s what we try to play for every single season. The expectations are obviously different here. It takes special players to be here and to be a part of an environment like that.”

Tatum has been on a path to greatness since he got into the NBA. For all of the Celtics’ shrewd personnel moves that built this roster, Danny Ainge’s decision to trade down and draft Tatum at No. 3 instead of Markelle Fultz at No. 1 remains the lynchpin that all of the recent success is built upon. The Celtics have been a contender and now are the favorites because of Tatum and his development.

Tatum saved his best Media Day wisdom for someone just temporarily joining the press corps. Jabari Smith Jr., the Houston Rockets’ 21-year-old forward, was serving as a correspondent for NBA.com for the event. He asked Tatum what advice he’d give to a player, who hasn’t lived up to expectations yet.

“I’ve been in that situation. Everybody else in the world at your age at 21 is probably still in school, trying to figure out what they want to do in life,” Tatum said. “We come into the league at such a young age, and they want us to be perfect right away. It’s just part of growing up. You’re still growing up. I’m still growing up. It’s a process, right? Nothing was accomplished overnight. I think you’ll find a value in tough times, the ups and downs of just what life brings you.

He paused.

“I sound like a real old person right now,” he said, laughed and then continued. “In the sense of your career, I would say, ‘Man, enjoy it.’ There’s going to be some great times. There’s going to be some times that aren’t so great. It’s O.K. to be upset because that means you care, right? You want to be great. People believe that you can. They just try to rush the process. It takes however long it takes. But as long as you work hard, you believe, you got the right support system … Everything will take care of itself, how it’s supposed to.”

He said he’s taking his own advice.

“I told myself that if I ever got the opportunity again to make it to the Finals, never take it for granted. Obviously, we’re here now. Thankful to be here. I’m excited to get ready to play and have fun.”

Follow MassLive sports columnist Matt Vautour on Twitter at @MattVautour424.

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