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Jayson Tatum admits to NBA Finals pressure, wants to ‘enjoy it’

BOSTON — Ahead of appearing in his second NBA Finals on Thursday, Celtics star Jayson Tatum was asked if there’s a different level of pressure playing for a franchise that is attempting to claim an NBA-record 18th championship banner this month.

He didn’t hesitate in his answer.

“I mean, you know the answer to that,” Tatum said during his media availability Wednesday as part of the league’s media day. “Of course.

“We only hang NBA championship banners, right? 17 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.

“Essentially, yeah, 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 and the Celtics are more than familiar with the pressures that come with playing here — particularly after knocking on the door so often over the past several years. Since the start of the 2017 playoffs, the Celtics have reached the Eastern Conference finals six times, and are appearing in the league’s championship round for a second time in three years.

Over those eight years, Boston has played in more playoff games (126) than any other team in NBA history without winning a championship, all while playing for a franchise that’s hoping to move past its forever rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, and back into pole position among all teams in terms of titles won.

Tatum, though, said he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future, or what winning a title would mean to him.

“Yeah, honestly, I don’t think about the future or what this may mean for me down the road,” Tatum said. “As simple as it sounds, just try to stay present, stay in the moment, enjoy it, right? Keep talking about pressure, pressure, pressure… It’s the NBA Finals. This s— is supposed to be fun.

“That’s kind of where I’m at with it. I’m in the NBA Finals. I have a second opportunity to win a championship. I want to enjoy it. I want to enjoy the moment, enjoy it with my teammates and my family.

“So that’s where my narrow focus is at: competing at a high level, finally getting to play tomorrow, just having fun. Just going out there and doing what I love to do.”

Joining Tatum and the rest of the Celtics on the court will be center Kristaps Porzingis, who confirmed Wednesday that he will make his return in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, more than five weeks after he suffered a calf strain in Game 4 of Boston’s first-round series victory over the Miami Heat.

Porzingis, who has never played in a playoff game past the first round of the playoffs in his nine NBA seasons, admitted that he is still unsure what his conditioning level is heading into Game 1 after having such an extended layoff.

“Yeah, I think it’s still kinda open,” Porzingis said. “It’s still not super clear. I haven’t had that much time. We’ll see tomorrow night, and then go from there.”

After returning to practice Friday, Porzingis said he hasn’t been doing too much strenuous work ahead of the Finals and has had some Kinesio tape on his lower right leg.

“I’ve been keeping it pretty light the last couple of days,” Porzingis said. “Just prepping my body, recovering as much as I can right before the game to be in the best shape possible for tomorrow. It’s been pretty light. Today’s going to be another light day and, yeah, just prepping for tomorrow.”

The Celtics have been preparing for this moment for years, after their many deep forays into the playoffs. They traded for Porzingis and Jrue Holiday last offseason, in the hopes of giving them more offensive versatility deep in the postseason. Boston then won 64 games in the regular season, and put up an equally dominant plus-11.7 net rating — with the gap between the Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder in second the same as the one between Oklahoma City and the Indiana Pacers in 10th.

They then tore through the Eastern Conference with a 12-2 record, dispatching the Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Pacers in barely more than the minimum number of games required — helped, in part, by Jimmy Butler, Jarrett Allen, Donovan Mitchell and Tyrese Haliburton all missing time with injuries.

None of it will matter, though, if the Celtics can’t finish the job and close the playoffs out with a victory over Dallas.

“I think this is a special group,” Jaylen Brown said. “I really do. The core group of it has been here for a few years now. We’ve been able to go through the experiences of having success but not having success at the same time.

“I think to solidify the ultimate goal is to get over the hump and win. I think that will add a lot to our legacy. But as of right now, that story is kind of still untold.”

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