SAN FRANCISCO — Jayson Tatum smiled resignedly when asked about the Boston Celtics’ confidence level after losing Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
If any nihilistic thoughts torment him after he scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Golden State Warriors, he’ll hold them down.
“You better be confident, right?” Tatum said. “We can’t win two in one day. We only won one on Thursday. We’ve been in this before. So it’s not over. Got to win on Thursday.”
The Celtics have repeated many times this postseason that Boston knows what to do when cornered in a playoff series. They did it again Monday night after a 3-2 series loss in the NBA Finals, and now they face elimination in Boston on Thursday. But the confidence they’ve shown when speaking in previous series is missing.
For a number of reasons, they now find their situation in new territory, leaving the Celtics looking for answers on how to recover in time for Game 6.
“Our confidence has to be at an all-time high,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said. “Our beliefs have to live on. We have to play as a team, as a unit. All season, it’s kind of like us against everybody. I don’t think it’s any different now.”
“We have to look at each other right now. Our backs are against the wall,” center Robert Williams said.
As we all know, the Celtics are in a knockout game.
They played three games in the playoffs this season and advanced by winning all of them.
They lost 3-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then won the next two games to advance to the Western Conference finals. There, the Miami Heat played Game 7 and Boston won 100-96.
Typically, the Celtics seem to be making their path harder than they need to be, plunging into a lull when they play in non-must-win games. They had a chance to complete the series against the Heat at home in six games, but couldn’t. They lost to Miami’s Jimmy Butler by 47 points that night. They were beaten by the same team they beat convincingly, showing their lack of focus.
Their disregard manifested in turnovers such as careless turnovers — the Celtics gave up 16.8 turnovers in each of their playoff losses and just 12.8 in their playoff victories. They gave up 18 turnovers on Monday night.
Their offense can be dated at times, but their defense has helped save them.
Before Game 5, Boston coach Ime Udoka said the Celtics could have gone 3-1 in the series had their offense played better. Then they missed their first 12 3-pointers at the start of Game 5.
The change now is that Golden State seems to have deciphered the Celtics. Boston’s physical condition no longer frightens them. Shut down Stephen Curry? Golden State still won.
For most of the playoffs, every time Boston lost a game, it recovered in the next. Game 5 was the first time the Celtics have lost two straight in the playoffs — and that’s due to differences in balance and resilience, with a young Boston on the low end.
As the series progresses, the Golden State Warriors appear increasingly poised to pounce on the Celtics’ weaknesses.
Celtics forward Al Horford said he feels his team is “almost playing some of the things they want us to do, which is to take controversial mid-range shots that can sometimes be played more than we want. Hurry up. I think that’s part of the reason our offense didn’t click as much as it needed to.”
In Game 5, the Celtics also fell victim to their dissatisfaction with the referee, which intensified their offensive struggle. For most of the night, the team complained and argued.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be doing too much, we’re all doing too much,” Udoka said.
Also unfamiliar to the Celtics facing the knockout stage this time around is the pressure this stage of the season brings.
After Boston went 2-1 in the series, all the talk of Golden State’s advantage in championship experience seemed like nonsense. At the time, the Celtics seemed to lose that game simply because they lost focus, as they sometimes do. At the time, Boston seemed too big, too strong, too athletic and too young for the Golden State Warriors experience to make much of an impact.
But now the series has reached a point these Celtics have never seen.
“We understand what we need to do,” Curry said. “It’s just about going out and executing, trying to control your emotions, knowing how hard it is to finish the game.”
As Boston looked for answers, the Golden State Warriors smelled blood.
“I’ve never been so excited to go to Boston, I’ll tell you,” Klay Thompson said.