By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Best record in the NBA. A team that won the Eastern Conference and went to the NBA Finals last season. A pair of All-Stars, including the MVP. And a coach who isn’t an interim coach anymore.
The Boston Celtics have much to like about where they are right now.
Jayson Tatum’s All-Star scoring records — 55 points in the game, 27 points in the third quarter, both numbers that never have been touched by any of the other 449 All-Stars in league history — were the big story coming out of Team Giannis’ 184-175 victory over Team LeBron on Sunday night.
And it might have signaled that the soon-to-be 25-year-old Tatum — Boston’s first All-Star MVP since Larry Bird in 1982 — is ready to take the step from stardom to something even bigger.
“I guess I’m not 19 anymore,” said Tatum, whose birthday is March 3. “But yeah, I say it all the time. I’m extremely grateful and blessed to be in this situation. I’m not too far removed from being a kid in St. Louis with essentially a ball and a dream and dreaming about these moments of being here. And living out that dream, in reality, is hard to describe. I try not to really think about the things I’ve accomplished. I never want to get complacent. I’m always chasing something, chasing more.”
That chase resumes Thursday night, when the Celtics open their post-All-Star slate in Indiana. Boston takes a league-best 42-17 record into the stretch run, a half-game better than Milwaukee (41-17) for the top spots in both the East and the NBA. But the Bucks are ailing; Khris Middleton’s knee is a concern, and winning All-Star captain Giannis Antetokounmpo played only 20 seconds Sunday night because of a wrist issue.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are soaring. Tatum and Jaylen Brown — playing for Team LeBron — combined for 90 points in the All-Star Game, further solidifying themselves as one of the best pairings in the league right now.
And the last minute of the third quarter of the All-Star Game was basically them playing 1-on-1. Everyone else on the court stopped to let it happen. Brown went first, hitting a stepback from near the right corner. Tatum lost the ball off the dribble on the next possession. They weren’t done; Brown made a 3 over Tatum, hitting him with the “too small” move while laughing. Tatum then made a 3 of his own, and the battle ended when he stopped Brown from getting a shot off before the end-of-quarter buzzer sounded.
“Going against my brother in Jayson, going back and forth, it was like no one was in there at all,” Brown said.
Sitting back and watching it all was Celtics coach — and Team Giannis coach — Joe Mazzulla, who isn’t Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla anymore. Boston made him the permanent coach last week, no surprise after he has kept the Celtics on a title-contending path even after he had to take over for now-former coach Ime Udoka on almost no notice just before training camp. Udoka was suspended over inappropriate conduct with a Celtics employee.
The last time Mazzulla was a head coach without an interim title was March 16, 2019. It was in the NCAA Division II tournament, when his Fairmont State club lost a first-round game to Mercyhurst.
“I’m going to miss that term, I guess, a little bit,” Mazzulla said. “And my thing is, the interim tag was never a thing because we’re all interims. You have to kind of have a short-term view but also a long-term. … As coaches, we’re here to make the game. The game’s not ours. It doesn’t belong to us. What matters is the seeds that we plant, and the things that we’re able to accomplish with the team.”
In Boston, the seeds are planted. Brown and Tatum have blossomed into full-grown stars. And the Celtics have reason to have the biggest goal of all down the stretch this season.
“Historically, or at least since I’ve been in the league, the team that has kind of clicked in this last stretch, has kind of peaked and played their best of the season going into the playoffs, usually is the team that wins it all,” Tatum said. “So, this stretch is important. You want to be as healthy as possible going into the playoffs. You want to be playing your best basketball, individually and as a group. That’s what we’re trying to do.”