Will the Tatum/Brown-era Celtics finally prove their toughness?

Stephen A. on Celtics: 'It's an epic failure if they don't win the championship' (2:37)

Stephen A. explains why the Celtics must win the NBA title this year after getting close over the past couple of seasons. (2:37)

IN THE OLD DAYS, whenever the Boston Celtics neared an NBA title, the march to the championship was accompanied by the arrogant certainty befitting to a dynasty, complete with the requisite accouterments: a victory cigar, opponents expecting to lose on the parquet floor and the welcomed expectations that come with the specter of 17 championship banners looking down, always expecting company.

The old days, however, are exactly that -- yesterday's news. Boston hasn't won a championship in 15 years, and the 2008 team is the only one to hoist a banner over the past 37 years. Still, in mind, memory and trophy case, they are the Celtics, and they have backed up a dominant 64-win season -- the fourth most in team history -- with a trip to the Eastern Conference finals for the third straight year, something Boston hadn't done since Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale did it five years in a row.

This season, Boston was 14 games better than the second-best team in the Eastern Conference (New York Knicks), and seven games better than the Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the two 57-game winners in the West. It defeated opponents by 11.3 points per game -- a differential reserved for dynasties (the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors and 1995-96 Chicago Bulls also won with this margin) and it was the best point differential in Celtics history.

Three times this season -- Nov. 1 against the Indiana Pacers (155-104), Feb. 14 versus the Brooklyn Nets (136-86) and March 3 against Golden State (140-88) -- the Celtics won by at least 50 points.

Through two playoff rounds, Boston has been ruthless, destroying both the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers in five games, by an average margin of victory of 22 and 15 points, respectively, and now Indiana, a team Boston was 17 games better than and beat three-of-four times, stands between it and its second Finals appearance in three years.

Yet, for an obvious juggernaut that was picked to win the NBA title since before Thanksgiving, nobody seems to be particularly happy in Boston. The star, Jayson Tatum, dismisses criticism of the Celtics as proof of an impatient society only happy when it's mad. Whether the subject is Boston's 3-point volume, its toughness or his time-out usage. Joe Mazzulla, the Celtics' overly defensive second-year head coach, wears the annoyed countenance of a man offended that he dared be asked any questions at all.

Whether Tatum and Mazzulla are purposely gaslighting their fan base by acting surprised by the anxiety, or if they are throwing up the protective shield teams do this time of year, these Celtics are eight victories from their 18th championship surrounded by angst that is well deserved, and the reason is as obvious as the Citgo sign: No championship-level Celtics team in the 78-year history of the franchise has ever taken so long to win a title.

Jaylen Brown will play in his sixth Eastern Conference final. In four of those series, the Celtics had home-court advantage -- and lost them all. The one year they didn't have home court -- 2022 -- they reached the Finals.

Bill Russell's Celtics won their first title in his rookie year. Bird's Celtics won in his second. The Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen Celtics won in their first year together.

No angst. No wait. No uncertainty. No heartbreak. No question if the stars were capable of taking the money from the table. When the Celtics have been great, they win -- and fast. Celtics superstars win titles. All of them have -- except to date, this group.

After dismantling a depleted Miami team, Tatum was ornery because of the persistent criticism that they lacked toughness. "In the world we live in, it's got to be something wrong with every team, and that's what they like to say. You see how talented we are," Tatum said after the series. "It's easy to say teams can out-tough us. I never understood that, like, what's the definition of toughness? Having the louder guys on your team? That s--- don't make you tough.

"Everyone has their own definition of what toughness is. Playing the right way. Showing up every day to do your job without complaining. I think that's being tough."

BOSTON MAY COLLECTIVELY not want to hear it, but questioning its toughness as a championship team is a legitimate criticism, not simply because it hasn't won, but specifically because of how it has lost. The Tatum-Brown Celtics have been defined by losing from ahead.

  • For great teams, the NBA regular season exists for one reason: to secure home-court advantage. Entering this postseason, the Celtics were 12-15 over their past 27 home playoff games.

  • Last season, in a first-round closeout game at home, with additional rest on the line, the Celtics lost Game 5 to the Atlanta Hawks and had to play an extra playoff game. In the next series against Philadelphia, they lost Game 1 at home to a 76ers team without Joel Embiid and then lost a pivotal Game 5 at home to face two elimination games before Tatum personally broke the 76ers in Game 7, with a 51-point performance.

  • In the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, a 44-win 8-seed that was nearly knocked out of the play-in tournament, the Celtics dropped the first three games of the series before two double-digit wins. Derrick White's miraculous buzzer-beater in Game 6 set the stage for a listless 19-point loss in Game 7 in Boston.

  • In 2022, up 3-2 against Miami in the conference finals, the Celtics were overwhelmed by Jimmy Butler's 47 points at home in Game 6 and were forced to win Game 7 on the road.

  • In the Finals versus Golden State, the Celtics were home, up 2-1 in the series -- then lost three straight games and the title. With a chance to go up 3-1 at TD Garden, they led 94-90 with 5:18 remaining, were outscored 17-3 and then Stephen Curry took over the series and buried the Celtics. The Warriors eliminated the Celtics in Game 6 in Boston. To that point, only once had the Celtics been eliminated at home in the Finals, by the Lakers in 1985.

  • In the 2018 conference finals against Cleveland, the Celtics won the first two games of the series and then lost four of the next five, including the final two games of the series and a Game 7 in Boston where the Celtics led 72-71 with 6:04 left and were sent home without scoring a basket over the next 5:30.

Much of the cast is different, but Tatum and Brown are the duo, Al Horford has been the backbone. Still, these Celtics have so often been the better team and have been unable to close. This is what this group carries. It is what the fans are carrying. There's no mystery here.

During last year's Miami series, exasperated not only by their underachieving but also the way the Celtics seemed to possess a certain, bizarre aloofness as if they were above the basic, primal competition that is NBA playoff basketball, four-time champion Shaquille O'Neal said on national television, "The Celtics are too cool for me."

The message was clear: Boston might be more talented. It might have better shooters. It might have home court. But at some point, it will give opponents hope, and Boston will be the one who blinks, because so far, it has been.

The Celtics are in new territory because every title-ready squad won, and won quickly, avoiding the frustrations of, say, the 1977-1983 Sixers, which in those seven years lost in the Finals three times, the Eastern Finals twice and epically blew a 3-1 series to Boston in the 1981 conference finals before the exhale of acquiring Moses Malone and destroying everyone along the way to the 1983 title.

The closest comparison in Boston to these Tatum-Brown Celtics was the post-Russell-Cowens-Havlicek years that lost to the Knicks in consecutive East finals in 1972 and 1973, the latter after a 68-win season. Those Celtics went on to win two of the next three championships.

ANOTHER REASON for the heavy scrutiny is the Celtics' determination to win in the most extreme ways: by shooting nearly half of their attempts from beyond the 3-point line. The Celtics represent the analytic wing of NBA thinkers, and Mazzulla might be one of the game's most hardened ideologues. Mazzulla has consistently called the 3-point attempt the most important statistic in basketball.

During the regular season, 47.1% of the Celtics shots were 3-pointers. Boston is shooting the same percentage after two rounds of playoffs. The Celtics are also in the bottom third in free throws attempted, undermining another tenet of playoff basketball -- free points and placing foul pressure on the opposition.

Mazzulla and the Celtics may be ahead of the field with their victory-by-volume strategy, especially in a league where referees have allowed more physical play. (The league averaged 18.7 fouls called per game, the lowest number in NBA history.) Should the Celtics win the title, they will be the third champion over the past four years to attempt more than 40% of their overall shots from 3. The 2021 Bucks took 40.4% of their shots from deep, while the 2022 Warriors shot a record 45.6% of their shots from deep. Everybody's doing it. It is the future.

And we've been here before. The Celtics and the basketball analytics culture exudes an arrogance similar to the data revolution in baseball over the past 20 years when a new generation of executives incorporated new tactics and strategies into the game -- along with a heavy dose of condescension toward the Old Ways.

In the NBA, the Celtics' attitude sometimes feels similar to the early Sam Hinkie years in Philadelphia when the 76ers believed they were reinventing the game by losing on purpose. The Celtics believe in their boom-and-bust style, and when they are hot, they look unbeatable -- but playoff basketball is, has been and will always be won in the trenches, shortened benches, heart versus heart. You cannot calculate your way to a title.

Instead of being offended by the questions, the Celtics should remain motivated by their disappointing postseason resume. A current comparison is the San Francisco 49ers, who have seen championships slip through their fingers the past few years and are facing the same questions as these Celtics.

There's a difference between being soft and lacking toughness. The Boston Celtics are not soft. Winning playoff games on the road is not the mark of a weak team, but just as there is a difference between a great player and a Hall of Famer, there is a difference between great teams and champions. There are, as Tatum knows, levels to the quest.

Boston has dominated the East all year, so it should dominate the conference final, but none of which is to say the Celtics are overwhelming favorites to win the title. They aren't. Minnesota and Dallas are both excellent teams.

So, what is toughness and how is it to be defined? Toughness is protecting home court the way all champions do.

During Boston's last championship-level run, the Pierce-Garnett-Allen 2008-2012 teams, the Celtics were 38-10 at the Garden in the playoffs. In the golden era, the 1980-1987 Bird-era teams went 58-14 at home. The past three NBA champions, Denver (10-1), Golden State (11-1), and Milwaukee (10-1), combined for a 31-3 home record. The Celtics were 37-4 at home during the season this year, which was why losing Game 2 at home against both Miami and Cleveland rightfully restored the old doubts.

Toughness is making the transition that, unlike the regular season, postseason possessions are more important than volume -- no matter what the analytics say. The game is officiated differently. The bodies are tired. The teams are better. The scouting is better. The energy is heightened.

There's an extra level of concentration required of Brown, Tatum and the Celtics' offense to constantly attack defenses, instead of becoming the more easily guardable, make-or-miss players who rely on overwhelming the opposition with 3-pointers. Both stars are capable of applying relentless pressure on defenders, rather than bailing out with 3-pointers.

Toughness is also not deflecting the obvious with bravado or insecurity. Everyone is aware of the stakes -- no one more than the Celtics themselves, for it's their peers in the opposite uniforms who believe this team will always leave the door open -- because so far, they have. These are the facts, and no level of postgame defensiveness can change them.

Toughness is arriving instead of acting like it.

This postseason, however, the Celtics have been all business: 8-2 overall, 4-2 at home, 4-0 on the road and not very much extra wear and tear by letting down. After the Cleveland series, Brown admitted the sting of losing at this point stays primary in his mind. Unlike previous years, Boston has responded to bad home losses by running the table twice. Unlike previous postseasons, these Celtics have not acted cool after losing, but have strung together four and three-game winning streaks. They've been different.

Instead of being burdened by the past, they have played as if they are unwilling to repeat it. Toughness is realizing the expectations that come with the Boston Celtics is a compliment. It is their talent and accomplishment combined with the pedigree of the uniform that has created the outsized expectations. Instead of treating the moment with condescension as Mazzulla often does, the stage belongs to Brown and Tatum, the coaches and the rest, to acknowledge the totality of the moment: The Celtic challenge is not a media creation, nor is it unfair. It's the bar they've created for themselves.