2022 NBA Finals: Are the Celtics fumbling away a championship?

SAN FRANCISCO — That’s certainly not what the Boston Celtics had in mind when they gave out T-shirts with the slogan “It’s all about 18” last week.

Eighteen turnovers. Eighteen head-slapping, launch-a-remote-on-your-tv sales. In the biggest moment of the season. The Celtics couldn’t avoid each other Monday night, coughing up the ball 18 times as the Golden State Warriors sped away on the finish line of a Game 5 win at the Chase Center.

Sometimes it feels like Boston is literally throwing away a championship. You need to win two games in a row to come out with Banner 18.

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For weeks we’ve been claiming that there’s only one team left in the playoffs that could beat the Celtics: themselves. The Warriors deserve credit for the way they’ve beefed up their defense at times and for Stephen’s otherworldly offensive outbursts Curry. But the Celtics are the better team; They simply refuse to play like this long enough to force the issue.

Instead, the Celtics produce the kind of turnovers that would drive your junior high basketball coach insane. And even on a night when Curry looks human — for the first time in about his entire existence, he didn’t hit a single 3-pointer in a postseason game — the Celtics’ turnovers sealed their fate.

On Boston’s first offensive possession, Jayson Tatum separated two defenders, drew a crowd near the rim and threw a pass that hit a front-row fan in the numbers. (Marcus Smart, the intended recipient, didn’t even grab the erroneous throw.) It was a harbinger of what was to come.

Yes, the Warriors clogged the paint and made it harder for the Celtics to drive through this series. But so many of Boston’s freebies have been seemingly casual. For all their offensive talents, Tatum and Jaylen Brown sometimes dribble like they’ve covered the ball in baby oil.

Just look at this collection of game 5 drive sales…

The Celtics routinely drive for no purpose. Too often they leave their feet without knowing where to put the ball. They throw themselves into a crowd and hope for whistles. Instead of growing strong through contact, the Celtics too often cough up the ball on a defender’s first shot.

This is not a new problem. Ball security was in the spotlight during these playoffs. The demarcation line was set at 16 long ago.

Boston is 0-6 when it turns the ball 16 or more times this postseason, and 14-3 when that number is smaller (and one of those losses was with 15 freebies).

The Celtics got away with their miscues against the Bucks without Khris Middleton and the offensively challenged Miami Heat. The Warriors haven’t been exactly unworldly on offense this series, averaging a manageable 105.2 points per game, but that was more than enough most nights as the Celtics endured painful stretches of poor offensive play.

Golden Opportunities

Warriors points ahead of Celtics TOs (most in any NBA Finals since 1992)

The Celtics just can’t hang when they’re giving away so many possessions. It’s not just sales either. Boston missed a head-shaking 10 free throw attempts in a 10-point game Monday night. They drew two technical fouls and let the umpires get into their heads. (You can’t complain about officiating when you shoot yourself in the foot so many times, plus Boston dominates the free-throw fight in this series).

Boston can’t take it easy. Even at the end of an overwhelming third-quarter rally, the Celtics went too fast on one final punch, giving Jordan Poole enough time to execute a midfield stroke that re-energized the crowd and sent the Warriors into the last quarter with both a lead and something much needed momentum.

The playoff grind could catch up with the Celtics, and Tatum’s inability to even hit the rim in the fourth quarter seems to confirm that. But that’s no excuse for its double-digit sales in the first half.

The Celtics have two choices: bring the focus it needs and try to bring that thing back to The Bay for a Game 7 where anything can happen. Or spend the foreseeable future wondering what might have been if they hadn’t been their own worst enemy.

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