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Jayson Tatum and the Celtics Are Running Out of Answers

Golden State has pushed Boston to the brink while grinding its offense to a halt. If the Celtics can’t find some daylight in Game 6, their feel-good season will come to a frustrating end.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There have been plenty of headline-grabbing stories from the 2022 NBA Finals: the brilliance of Stephen Curry; Jaylen Brown’s juice and Robert Williams III’s interior intimidation; the redemption of Andrew Wiggins and the return of #StrengthInNumbers. The biggest story of these Finals, though, is the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum–led offense—its form, its function, and, increasingly, its fracturing, particularly late in games.

The Celtics won Game 1 after a fourth-quarter avalanche—going small, spacing the floor, and burying the Warriors with a 3-point barrage. Since then, though, Boston’s been largely unable to generate consistent offense late in games, failing to eclipse 25 points in the fourth quarters of games 2 through 5 and scoring just 95.6 points per 100 possessions over the last four final frames—a level of offensive ineptitude commensurate with the mid-Process Sixers. Those struggles have pushed the Eastern Conference champions to the brink as they head home for Game 6 on Thursday, potentially 48 minutes away from their season’s end.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Celtics big man Al Horford said after Game 5 on Monday. “This is the time that we look at each other in the eyes and we got to figure it out. We have an opportunity now. Got to figure it out. There’s no tomorrow for us.”

Boston’s defense, far and away the NBA’s best during the regular season, has performed mostly as advertised in the championship round. With the exception of the Game 2 onslaught that kept Curry and Co. from going down 0-2 at home, the Celtics have largely kept the Warriors under wraps, holding them to just 93.9 points per 100 plays in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass; that would’ve ranked 21st in the league this season.

That meat-grinder half-court defense—so adept at switching off-ball screens, neutering Golden State’s split actions and backdoor cuts, taking away airspace and essentially forcing Curry to be superhuman to generate points—has given the Celtics a chance to win every game in this series. The issue, as ever, has been their ability to keep the game in the half court: Boston has turned the ball over on 17.2 percent of its offensive possessions in the Finals and given up 20.6 points per game off of those cough-ups, both of which would have been near the worst marks in the NBA during the regular season.

The C’s predilection toward live-ball turnovers—the lollipop entries, the jump-with-no-plan kickouts, the audacious attempts to thread the needle in traffic—have been particularly damaging. Golden State has snagged 49 steals in five games and has scored nearly 1.5 points per play attacking off of those thefts, routinely turning Boston’s mistakes into layups or drawn fouls:

Boston finished Game 5 with 18 turnovers—five by Brown, four apiece by Tatum and Marcus Smart. They led to 22 Warriors points and a Golden State win, continuing one of the clearest patterns and most glaring statistical bellwethers of this postseason: The Celtics are now 1-7 when they turn the ball over 16 or more times in these playoffs, and 13-2 when they don’t.

“We’re hard to beat when we don’t turn the ball over,” Tatum told reporters after Game 5. “Clearly, we’re easy to beat when we do turn the ball over.”

Well, maybe not easy, but easier—and even more vulnerable when they compound those turnovers with the kind of shots that might as well count the same in the box score.

The quieter headaches come when a Celtic misses a layup on a pell-mell drive to the paint or a catch-and-shoot jumper from the corner, and Golden State can snare the defensive rebound. The Dubs have hunted opportunities to push off of those misses, particularly when a couple of Celtics are below the free throw line and Boston’s floor balance is off. They’ve found pay dirt there, especially of late: Golden State averaged 1.12 points per possession that began with a defensive rebound in games 4 and 5, according to Inpredictable, a dramatic uptick from the first three contests, and a big help in tilting the offensive tide in their favor.

That sort of play—physical point-of-attack defense, on-time and aggressive help at the basket, hard closeouts, multiple efforts for 50/50 balls, a commitment to pushing the pace—is about as good a definition of “force,” a favored phrase of Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and defensive totem Draymond Green, as you’re going to get. Golden State brought that out of the gate in Game 5 and Boston stuttered in the face of it, going 2-for-8 from the field with two turnovers in the opening five minutes, putting the Celtics behind the eight ball throughout a first half that saw them score a ghastly 71.7 points-per-100 in the half court and let Golden State score a mind-boggling two points per play (essentially a guaranteed bucket) in transition.

The meandering becomes all the more maddening when you see Boston play the way it did in the third quarter—aggressive but composed, precise and well-spaced, breaking down individual defenders to collapse the interior coverage, then trusting the pass and creating for others. The C’s notched seven assists on 11 made baskets in that 35-point third quarter, completely, if briefly, flipping the game with their execution:

“When we’re at our best, it’s simple ball movement—I think the third quarter showed that,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said. “The drive-and-kick was beautiful, was working, getting guys wide-open shots. … That has been a problem for us, obviously, at times in this series, quarters specifically where we’ve gotten a little stagnant. When we do it well, it works, it looks good, we get shots we want. [When] we slow it down, play in the crowd, those turnovers pop up in the bad offense.”

Boston’s inability to break those cycles—to settle everything down, run a set, create a good look, and come up with a silencer that stops a run before it can get rolling—has proved costly in the past couple of games.

“The guys that have the ball need to make the reads. It’s a hard job, but they have to identify things,” Horford said. “Outlets are going to be what they are. Defense is going to be what it is. It’s just about making the play. It’s just as simple as that.”

Golden State, far and away the more experienced team on this stage, has more successfully kept it simple. Even without his shot online, Curry (eight assists and just one turnover in 37 minutes) controlled the game as the kind of steady hand who knew exactly how to draw two to the ball and make the next play. The ball flowed more freely; the looks became easier.

For as much growth as Smart’s shown as a primary point guard, and as much as Tatum and Brown have developed as wing facilitators, the Celtics haven’t really had that level of possession-by-possession control in this series. Without it, the empty trips pile up and metastasize; without it, as Brown said after the game, “We were looking around expecting somebody to bail us out.”

That’s supposed to be Tatum, who’s less than a month removed from being named both an All-NBA First Team forward and MVP of the Eastern Conference finals, but who has—despite leading the Celtics in points, rebounds, and assists per game in this series—not quite been able to muster enough. The culprits, in large part: a propensity for turnovers—18 in these Finals and 95 in the playoffs, most of any player in any postseason since 1978—and a persistent inability to convert inside the arc.

Tatum’s shooting a scorching 19-for-40 (47.5 percent) from 3-point land, but just a dismal 19-for-62 (30.6 percent) on 2-pointers. Udoka has at times bemoaned his star’s penchant for driving to seek contact rather than driving to score, which can result in off-balance, low-percentage runners that leave him in a heap on the baseline rather than finishing above the rim and trotting back on defense. He’s also struggled mightily with the length, quickness, and determination of Wiggins, who’s held him to 9-for-29 shooting inside the arc, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ matchup data.

When Tatum’s been able to shed the Canadian, he’s had more success shooting over the top of the smaller Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II, and working to attack Curry in pick-and-roll action and isolation. For the most part, though, he’s had a really hard time finding daylight against a Golden State defense committed to both walling off the front of the rim and sending extra help his way whenever he turns the corner:

After shooting just 3-for-8 in the paint in Game 5, including misses on all three of his inside attempts in the fourth quarter, Tatum said he felt happy with the looks he was getting; he’s “just got to make more of them.” That, he added, might entail getting his legs into his shots a bit more because, “I mean, you’re going to be a little more tired in the fourth than you are in the first quarter.”

That might be more true for Tatum at this stage of the season than it is for any other player on the court. He has played 192 more minutes in this postseason than any Warrior, after finishing fourth in the NBA in regular-season court time; he’s played more playoff minutes than any player since LeBron James with the Big Three Heat, and is nearing a staggering 3,700 total minutes since opening night. Brown, Boston’s second-leading scorer, hasn’t borne quite as heavy a burden, but he’s still played more minutes, postseason and total, than anyone on Golden State’s roster.

Both Tatum and Brown played the entire second half until Kerr and Udoka emptied their benches with 1:19 to go, each logging more than 44 minutes—the 10th time Tatum has played 40-plus minutes in the past month, and Brown’s ninth. That kind of workload can manifest in both a lack of lift on late-game jumpers and, perhaps more critically, suboptimal choices at inopportune moments.

There’s the way that fatigue can impede focus, and how the vicissitudes of 3-point variance can send you careening from 12 straight misses to eight straight makes to six straight misses in the blink of an eye. There’s the flip side of committing to hunting Curry and Poole—dragging possessions down late into the shot-clock morass—and the challenge of generating good looks against a Draymond-led defense that’s moving at light speed to shrink the floor on every trip. Trying to beat the Warriors in the Finals isn’t about any one of these things; it’s about all of it, all together, all at once. It’s a monumental burden; it’s a lot to bear.

But so was Giannis and a must-win Game 6 on the road, and so was Jimmy and a Game 7 on the road, and the Celtics are still standing. When you get this far, the weight is a gift. Those who can bear it get rings. Those who can’t get only regret.