SAN FRANCISCO – The Boston Celtics have been here before. Following their Game 5 loss, one that moved them closer to becoming a footnote of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty, they must have felt accustomed to their situation. Before reaching these NBA Finals, they played back-to-back seven-game series. Both times, they stared down elimination.
So Monday night, they weren’t shaken. And like the veterans they are, they knew all the right cliches to deploy while explaining their plight.
Al Horford twice mentioned having their “backs against the wall.” Robert Williams III parroted his teammate in saying players must “look each other in the eye.” Jaylen Brown went more dire, describing Game 6 as “survival of the fittest.”
As a collection, the Celtics sounded confident, almost humdrum, about their latest elimination game. On the floor Monday night, however, they looked nothing like the worthy challengers who have largely, and surprisingly, outplayed the Warriors in this series.
No moment should be too big for these Celtics; after the first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, all the talk about being plucky overachievers should have stopped. So if the crashing wave of noise coming from the Chase Center crowd couldn’t shake them for long and superstar Stephen Curry’s shooting (0 for 9 from the 3-point arc) didn’t overwhelm them, then the culprit in Game 5 had to be more parochial.
The Celtics were undone by their own mistakes. On Monday night, they lost their handle, their cool and their game. It was theirs to win. And after holding a 2-1 series lead, the Celtics return home trailing 3-2 and with the same baggage they packed for the trip to San Francisco: themselves.
“For us, it’s really about consistency,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “That’s the thing we’re not having throughout a full game – consistent efforts, sustained effort, more so offensively than anything. That’s the part where we got to have carry-over, not only game to game but quarter to quarter.”
Udoka did not single out a player while making those comments. But 24-year-old star Jayson Tatum should have been listening.
Tatum is trying his best to channel greatness during these playoffs. During Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, he wore a purple “24” armband that clashed with his Celtic green; he did so to honor his hero, Kobe Bryant. Then, during this championship round, he has walked the hallways wearing a shirt with the image of a cigar-smoking, Larry O’Brien trophy-toting Michael Jordan. On Monday, he chose a fit featuring Tiger Woods.
Maybe he’s hoping that, by fashion osmosis, their potency will become his. But clothes don’t always make the man, and Tatum’s ballhandling woes and inconsistency have a way of stunting his obvious thirst for greatness.
The first time Tatum touched the ball Monday, he threw it away. He has 18 turnovers in five games of the Finals and a record-setting 95 in the postseason. But the sloppiness didn’t hurt his shooting, and after halftime – for a change, the Celtics came out of the locker room ready for the third quarter – his trio of 3-pointers guided the Celtics through a dominant frame in which they shot 58% and outscored the Warriors 35-24.
They had shushed the crowd and looked in command, at one point even making eight straight 3-pointers after starting 0 for 12 from beyond the arc. A repeat of Game 1, when the Celtics endured an early Curry onslaught but then steadied themselves for a comeback win, seemed to be in the making – until Warriors guard Jordan Poole beat the third-quarter buzzer with a 38-footer and broke their spirit.
Tatum played nearly 11 minutes in the final quarter and missed 4 of 5 shots. Boston was outscored by 15 points while he was on the floor.
“Part of that could be fatigue,” said Udoka, who mentioned “fatigue” seven times during his postgame comments. “(Tatum) expended a lot. Obviously, him playing 44 minutes. He was one of our main guys rolling. When he got it going in the third, we rolled him a little bit longer there. The bench production wasn’t as sharp as usual, so we ran Jayson longer. Some of that fatigue and decision-making could play a part in the fourth quarter.”
Fatigue probably was a reason, but frustration was another factor. Udoka and point guard Marcus Smart spent too much time tied up in heated conversations with the officials. In the fourth quarter, Smart flopped instead of trying to defend Klay Thompson on the perimeter – a bad decision that led to an open 3-pointer. When Udoka called a timeout, he confronted official Tony Brothers, who didn’t take kindly to Udoka pointing his finger at him, according to the coach.
Boston staffers and players attempted to step between the two and keep Brothers from coming closer to Udoka, who already had a technical foul.
“Yeah, not our best moment,” Horford said of the extended conversations with the officials. “We were able to focus back in, but we can never let that get to us. We can’t let that affect our game, the way that things are being played. We feel like we can control a lot of those things. It’s something that we have to move on from and be better on Thursday.”
Also in the fourth quarter, Smart picked up a tech, then compounded it with an offensive foul for the Celtics’ 16th turnover. These self-inflicted mistakes don’t just stifle the offense; they have huge consequences in the outcome. In Game 5, the Celtics finished with 18 turnovers and fell to 1-7 in the playoffs when they commit 16 or more.
After the game, the Celtics stuck to the script and chose the phrase they’ve relied on at other precarious times in the playoffs.
“We know what we need to do. We know what we’ve been messing up on,” Williams said while sitting next to Horford. “Going back to what the OG said, we have to look each other in the eye now. Our backs are up against the wall.”
They may have sounded like veterans, but for the first time in this matchup, they diminished in the spotlight. If their backs are against the wall, it’s because they’ve been moving in reverse, and now they have one more chance to change direction.