Boston Celtics need a hero

While Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been great individually in the playoffs, the Celtics making it to the NBA Finals really was a collective effort with plenty of heroism from their top role players . From Grant Williams thwarting Kevin Durant on his way to sweeping Kevin Durant in the first round, to Al Horford discovering the Fountain of Youth and turning back into the 2018 anti-Antetokounmpo weapon, to Derek White terrorized Miami’s guards with omnipresent defense, and the Celtics have been finding new answers to the challenges they faced throughout the playoffs.

That is, they have been until now. As the Celtics lost back-to-back losses to the Golden State Warriors to put themselves on the brink of elimination, their best role player contributions have largely dried up. Over the past two games, Williams had seven fouls in 28 minutes and had just six points. Horford, 36, looks terrific in his efforts to help control the Warriors’ talented shooting guard. White’s scoring differential roller coaster fell back violently again. Boston is running out of rotation options.

That said, this is the NBA Finals. The teams that leave with Larry O’Brien are almost always the ones that take them there by their star players. Just look at the Celtics opposition. Despite a tribute to Andrew Wiggins, Stephen Curry’s Extraordinary Series allowed the Golden State Warriors to knock on the door for a fourth championship. The Warriors got the series they needed from their superstar guard, and the Celtics — for a variety of reasons — didn’t get the same from Tatum and Brown.

This will have to change. The bill has expired, and if the Celtics are going to make a comeback against one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties, it will have to start with their two best players.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In Tatum’s case, it would be dishonest to simply say “play better.” The factors behind his Finals woes were more complicated than a simple downturn. The Celtics have played 23 playoff games so far, and if they force a Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors, that number will increase to 25 — just up from 2007-08 The NBA record of 26 playoff games set by a championship team is one less. Tatum played every game, and he averaged an absurd 41 minutes per game in that span. That number makes even Paul Pierce’s 38 minutes per game in 2008 look flat, let alone Stephen Curry’s 34.5 minutes this postseason. Tatum’s workload and responsibility are absolutely massive, especially considering he has yet to recover from a shoulder injury against Miami.

Unfortunately, Tatum didn’t let up. Clearly, this team needs him. Although his scoring took a hit, the team’s two wins were largely due to his stellar performance as a general on the field. Since then, this style of organization has declined. The turnovers that have often plagued him in the playoffs have become more sloppy. He finally improved his scoring output in Game 5, scoring 27 points on 50 percent shooting, but he couldn’t hold on and faded out in the fourth quarter, scoring just one goal. He just looked exhausted.

Tatum is too important to this offense. If he doesn’t play, either as a scorer or facilitator, or both, it’s going to be hard for the Celtics to survive. Really keeping him fresh can be a daunting task; you can’t keep him on the bench for too long. Taking a few days off after a Game 5 loss, you want your shoulders to feel a little better and your legs a little more flexible. But overall, it’s just a brave effort by a player who’s already left a lot on the field. If Tatum can score 30+ points with reasonable efficiency in Game 6, the Celtics will feel good about their chances. He had to figure out a way.

The pressure on Tatum could also be lessened, at least to some extent, with a more consistent partner. At one point in the series, with the Celtics up 2-1, Jaylen Brown looked like the likely favorite to win Finals MVP. That momentum collapsed in the ensuing two losses. Brown has shot just 38 percent from the field since Game 3, and the Celtics’ offense has failed to break the 100-point threshold in both games.

Monday’s poor Game 5 performance may well have been the worst postseason game of Brown’s young but accomplished postseason career. Brown fell almost entirely into Golden State’s hands. Sure, there are some open 3-pointers, but most of his attempts are thwarted in heavy traffic or difficult pull-ups. Even in Boston’s third quarter, he barely got involved, recording just two layups. He was 5-for-18 from the field, and many of his turnovers looked as bad as the stats.

If the Celtics want to extend this series, they need Brown in Games 1 and 3. They need a version like Brown’s to evaluate Draymond Green — one of the most versatile defenders in the game — and get him off the dribble with ease. Overall, the Celtics are inherently poor at attacking the rim, which makes Brown’s rim pressure especially valuable — especially with Tatum struggling to finish at the rim with a shoulder injury. Brown doesn’t just need to attack the rim, he needs strategy, and then it’s done when he gets there. No more desperate driving into heavy traffic, no more prayers of losing your balance on the edge.

Of course, it’s an oversimplification to say the Celtics are going to extend this series — let alone win it — they’ll need their star-wing duo to lead the way. Improving performance from their role players will go a long way, whether it’s someone catching fire from deep (the Celtics made a lot of quality looks in this series, even after they lost case), or a schematic change in Ime Udoka creates new possibilities. Robert Williams III appears to be a permanent X-factor as he continues to battle knee issues, and of course, there will be a foaming TD Garden crowd behind them as they struggle to get into Game 7 of San Francisco .

Sometimes, though, basketball is really that simple. Stars win games, and Celtics stars are more capable than they’ve shown. The cards are on the table, the season is coming – 48 minutes to play again, 96 minutes to go into the history books. It’s time for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to save the Boston Celtics.

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