B/R Interview: Celtics’ Jayson Tatum on MVP Race, All-Star Game, Trade Deadline, More
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This year’s NBA All-Star Game draft is going to look a little different with LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo selecting their rosters right before it starts Sunday, but Jayson Tatum has some advice for the two captains.
“Those guys know me pretty well, so if they want to win they should pick me,” the Boston Celtics star told Bleacher Report.
James knows how to win in this event with a perfect 5-0 record as a captain since the All-Star Game switched from the traditional matchup between the Eastern and Western Conferences to the one where the captains draft from a pool of players.
Tatum will be one of the starters in Salt Lake City and said he expects everyone to “have some fun with it” even if he has “no idea what it’s going to look like” come draft time.
Antetokounmpo and James could do far worse than drafting Tatum.
After all, the four-time All-Star seems to have elevated his game to another level in 2022-23 even though he already has a resume with three Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a spot in last season’s NBA Finals.
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He is averaging 30.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, which are all career-high marks. His performance has been all the more important with Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and others missing time for the Celtics.
“As I get older and the more games and playoff series I play, I just learn things,” Tatum said of his play. “I take what I learn and apply it to offseason training and try to come back better than last season. That’s all I really try to do is be better in every aspect than I was last season.”
Being better in every aspect has landed him firmly in the MVP discussion.
Tatum is fourth on ESPN’s MVP Ladder ahead of the All-Star Game and behind only Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. Yet those three and everyone else in the NBA are looking up at Boston’s 42-17 record as the best mark in the league ahead of the stretch run.
“The MVP race is tight, there’s a lot of guys that are having great years on winning teams,” he said. “It’s going to be close. All I can do is continue to play like I’m playing and contribute to winning, and the rest will take care of itself.”
He has contributed to plenty of winning, although the Celtics are still just a half-game ahead of the 41-17 Milwaukee Bucks in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee enters the All-Star break on a 12-game winning streak, and the two powerhouses will face off for a rubber match later in the season after splitting their first two contests.
Last season’s second-round playoff matchup between the two sides was arguably the most memorable of the entire postseason with Antetokounmpo carrying the Bucks even with Khris Middleton sidelined and forcing the full seven games.
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Yet Boston won the decisive Game 7 on its home court, illustrating how important it will be for Tatum and Co. to hold off the Bucks and clinch that home-court advantage again this time around.
“It’s the final stretch going into the playoffs, this is when you ramp up and really get it going because you’re trying to gel and get your rhythm right,” Tatum said of the race ahead. “Hopefully everybody can stay healthy, and we’ll take it one game at a time.”
Boston will approach that stretch run with some additional stability after it named Joe Mazzulla the permanent head coach, removed the interim tag and gave him a contract extension.
The choice of Mazulla was an obvious one since he was an assistant coach the previous three seasons and familiar with the players on the roster.
“He’s been great,” Tatum said of the coach who has helped lead Boston to its 42-17 mark. “More than anything, he’s just a really good person. I value the relationship that we have and the relationship he has with all the guys on the team. It’s a good relationship, we’re trying to help him and he’s trying to help us. We’re all on the same team trying to accomplish the same goal.”
That’s not the only team Tatum is on.
The Celtics’ leader is part of Ruffles’ roster of Chip Deal Athletes alongside Lebron James and A’ja Wilson and helped the company launch its “Choose the Flavor that Speaks to You” campaign for All-Star Weekend.
Part of that experience involved Tatum being on site at Salt Lake City’s J.Dawgs restaurant to launch Charles Barkley’s new signature Ruffles Hot Dog flavor that is based on the Hall of Famer’s favorite food. Fans started lining up at 5 a.m. for the event.
“It was cool, we surprised Chuck and surprised some people in line,” Tatum said.
He also made it clear his Flamin’ Hot BBQ flavor is still the best even if Barkley’s hot dog-inspired ones are “pretty good.”
“I’m honored to be a chip-deal athlete,” Tatum added. “That is something that is still cool to me. Going into the gas station and seeing my face on the chips, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t buy them every once in a while.”
Fortunately for Ruffles, it didn’t have to change those bags with Tatum’s face on them since he is still a member of the Celtics through a memorable trade deadline.
Not every star remained on the same team, though, as there was no shortage of headline moves with Kevin Durant going to the Phoenix Suns, Kyrie Irving going to the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers acquiring D’Angelo Russell in a three-team deal that saw them ship out Russell Westbrook.
Boston traded for Mike Muscala but was not in a position where it was going to be majorly involved in the deadline with so few needs across the roster.
Tatum was still paying attention.
“The NBA never ceases to amaze me,” he said of the flurry of trades. “Didn’t see any of those coming, especially in the last couple days before the deadline. Seems like the NBA is wide open now with a lot of good teams on both sides and a lot of new faces in new places.”
The NBA may be wide open, but the Celtics are still in pole position and will likely remain there as long as Tatum continues playing at the level he has this season.