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Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have finally proven they can be franchise players

The Celtics are getting everything they hoped for from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Jayson Tatum (left) and Jaylen Brown (right) in a collage.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are fulfilling their potential for the Celtics.

Late in the third quarter of a game against the Denver Nuggets on Friday, the thing that everyone who follows the Celtics has been waiting to see happen unfolded gloriously in the span of about 30 seconds. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum went BOOM, delivering a devastating one-two punch that reverberated throughout the Garden.

First, while leading the break, Tatum dropped off a casually perfect pass to Brown for a thunderous tomahawk dunk. Then, on the next possession, Tatum whirled, jab stepped, pivoted, and buried a three-point shot with the clock winding down. The Celtics had been in control of this one from the tip, but Jaylen and Jayson’s emphatic exclamations left no doubt that it was over.

There have been moments over the years when either Tatum or Brown have carried the Celtics. There have been times when both of them have done so during the same game. Rare, however, have been the moments when Tatum and Brown exploded on an opponent while working in tandem together.

During the two-plus years they have been on the same roster, it’s often appeared as if both players were following their own linear paths on opposite sides of the street. Earmarked from Day One as a superstar in training, Tatum’s offensive game has been heavily scrutinized. Tagged as a two-way threat from about the middle of his rookie season onward, Brown’s contributions have been tougher to pin down, yet just as picked over as Tatum’s.

Together, they made for an intriguing pair of talents, but the question remains: Is this really a dynamic duo that you can build a franchise around? Over the last few weeks, Brown and Tatum have answered that in the affirmative.

Coming into Monday’s game against the Cavs, Tatum was averaging 25-6-5 over his last three outings, while Brown has been at 27-and-5. Each has shown subtle variations to their multifaceted games.

The Tatum assists, for example, are a lovely addition for a player who had tended toward isolation scoring opportunities. Brown, who has always insisted that he has far more in his bag than he’d been allowed to display, is revealing new dimensions on a nightly basis thanks to his much-improved handle.

That dream sequence against the Nuggets was the culmination of the kind of promise that only two young up-and-coming stars can provide. Free agency signings are wonderful things, but to have two 20-something homegrown players blossom at the same time is the stuff that fuels dynastic visions.

Despite taking both players with top-three picks in back-to-back drafts, it was not always clear this was the way they their futures would unfold. One of them, if not both, would presumably be sacrificed on the altar of a blockbuster trade.

Once the Celtics signed Brown to a four-year, $115 million extension before the season started, their way forward was clear. No more lusting over disgruntled superstars on downtrodden teams. The Celtics will rise and fall based on Jaylen and Jayson’s progress. If this season is about anything beyond wins and losses, it’s about allowing the room for Jaylen and Jayson to develop organically.

There has never been any real question that Tatum would eventually become this kind of player. Even while he dabbled in the dark arts of the Mamba mentality during last season’s trainwreck, the raw material was simply too compelling to think he’d disappear forever into the murky world of poor shot selection.

As expected, Tatum cut way down on his diet of contested long two’s this season, replacing those ill-considered shots with far more healthier three-pointers. He’s also rebounded better, defended more consistently, and become a plus/minus monster.

What’s strange about Tatum’s campaign is that he seems to have lost his touch around the rim. An optimist would suggest that aspect of his game will catch back up in time. He’s simply too long and crafty to struggle in the paint forever. At any rate, Tatum is still barely scratching the surface of his All-NBA potential.

Brown’s path has been a bit more circuitous. Lacking Tatum’s polish, Brown’s abilities have been in the eyes of the beholder. Before the Celtics took him with the third pick of the 2016 draft there were league executives who had him rated in the 20s as opposed to the high lottery. He’s been proving people wrong ever since.

While Brown showed flashes of sublime excellence over his first few seasons, this season has been one long extended highlight reel. It’s that handle that has allowed him to succeed.

Where before his body hadn’t quite caught up with that engaging brain of his, now he’s able to get where he needs to go on the floor gracefully. Throw in much-improved shooting and he is making an excellent case for All-Star inclusion.

Their hot stretch came at a time with a stack of home games lined up just as the Celtics had begun to wobble ever so slightly. Regaining equilibrium was necessary, of course, but to do so without Gordon Hayward was equally important.

Hayward returned to the lineup against Cleveland after missing 13 games with a fractured hand and didn’t miss a beat. Before his injury, Hayward had been the Celtics’ best player. Now, there’s competition for that honor. Healthy competition, one can assume, given the way the Celtics have attacked this season.

That win over the Nuggets, incidentally, was a big deal because Denver has had Boston’s number the last few years. Last March, the Nuggets blasted the Celtics off the Garden court, adding yet another dispiriting loss to Boston’s ledger.

It was impossible to not feel the difference between the two teams that night. The young and eager Nuggets earnestly celebrated a well-earned playoff berth, while the miserable C’s dragged themselves toward the end of a frustrating campaign. Juxtapose that with this season where the C’s are singing “Kumbaya” and the Nuggets are trying to recapture that loving feeling.

It can not be overstated how little affection Boston had for its Celtics last season. What was lost in the hand wringing over last season’s disaster, however, was that while the faithful may have been frustrated with the on-court product, they hadn’t given up on the potential of their young stars in waiting.

This has always been the promise of Jaylen and Jayson. Now, it may finally be happening.