Celtics aren’t ready for this marathon to end

Forsberg: Do the Celtics have one last push to end the marathon season? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Jayson Tatum spent Day 262 of the 2021-22 Celtics season shuttled back and forth between media works with a basketball under his arm in what appeared to be a nod to the ball security issues that plagued Boston’s quest to secure Banner 18 have made difficult.

It’s hard to remember the last time Tatum didn’t have a basketball within reach. The Celtics’ season is almost nine months old at this point, and Tatum sacrificed much of his summer to chase gold with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. You’d have to go back to the start of the COVID pandemic — remember when we all spent April 2020 freaking out that Tatum didn’t have a basketball hoop in that house? – to find out the last time Tatum had a real vacation from basketball.

Tatum is undeniable given the workload he’s been through over the past 22 months, including the NBA bubble, a quick turnaround to the 2020-21 season, the Olympics and now Boston’s unlikely promotion to the 2022 Finals.

The Celtics have logged 23 playoff games in the last two months, and Tatum’s gas gauge showed below empty Monday amid a barrage of airballs in the fourth quarter of Boston’s Game 5 loss in San Francisco.

Tatum knows a much-needed break is coming, but he’s in no rush to get there.

“I’m not ready to finish the season yet,” Tatum said Wednesday at an ESPN appearance. “Rest tonight, be ready tomorrow, and do whatever it takes.”

It just wouldn’t feel right for the Celtics’ season to end on a whimper. That postseason trek requires a Game 7. Nobody at the Celtics needs two more cross-country flights given the absurd amount of airline miles they’ve already accrued — possibly a postseason record — but there’s not a player in this dressing room who wouldn’t endure Sunday’s none 12 more hours in the sky for a showdown for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The question, of course, is whether the Celtics can come through again to give themselves that opportunity.

Being back in TD Garden for the last time this season should give a jolt comparable to jerking a whole box of 5 Hour Energy. The Celtics need to balance that emotional strain by playing more focused.

Boston’s offense reverted to bad habits in the fourth quarter of Game 4 with a chance to take a comfortable 3-1 lead, then stuttered again in the first quarter of Game 5, ending any hopes of a furious second-half comeback aggravated Warriors took a 3-2 lead.

Having their backs to the wall has consistently given the Celtics the best basketball. Tatum’s best performance came in Game 6 against Milwaukee, where he defeated Giannis Antetokounmpo on the road as the Celtics clinched back-to-back wins to appear in that series. Resilience has been Boston’s hallmark this postseason, and it needs another dose in Game 6 of the Finals.

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“It was’nt easy. It was extremely tough. We’ve had some tough losses,” Tatum said. “Losing Game 5 against Milwaukee was extremely tough. Knowing that we had to win two, take to the streets. Losing Game 6 to the Heat was extremely tough.

“In those moments we just reacted. I don’t know exactly what it is but I think just our will to want to win is just trying to figure it out.”

The Celtics continue to exude confidence despite the daunting challenge ahead. The 23 games so far in this playoff march have prepared Boston for this moment.

“We’ve never shied away from a challenge all season,” said Jaylen Brown. “We don’t see it any differently now. It’s unfortunate that these learning curves sometimes turn into losses. But we wear every experience as a badge of honor. We take everything we learn into the next game. We put ourselves in a position to compete in this series with a team that has won before and made it.”

The tires of Boston’s star players have undeniably put in a lot of miles this postseason. With 943 total playoff minutes, Tatum has almost 200 more minutes than any other non-Boston player. (Klay Thompson is fourth in the postseason with 751 minutes). Brown (876) and Horford (776) are ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively. Marcus Smart (722nd minute) is seventh despite missing three games through injury.

All this after Tatum was fourth in the NBA in total minutes (2,731) during the regular season. The only other player in the top 50 for Boston was Smart (2,296).

The Celtics need more from their bench to take some of the pressure off their stars. Grant Williams has weathered his quietest streak, while Payton Pritchard and Derrick White have gone cold of late.

Boston is keeping its fingers crossed that Robert Williams is still on his recent upswing despite playing all six games of that series, which was ruled questionable due to his bulky left knee. The Celtics are hoping that after chasing a Finals for so long, 36-year-old Al Horford can give a little more while acknowledging more than anyone that those moments are guaranteed.

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But much of Game 6’s burden falls on Tatum, Brown and Smart. Like Tatum, who lugs the basketball around Wednesday, Boston’s primary ball handlers have to value the ball at every turn. The Boston stars must avoid a desire to single-handedly convince the team when they are struggling on offense and embrace the ball movements that have allowed this team to thrive in the second half of the season. They need to hear the voice of Brad Stevens in their heads: hit singles.

You also can’t get overwhelmed by the need to win two games to win this series. Tatum might have put it best after Boston’s Game 5 loss: The Celtics can’t win two games in one night. All they can do is try to take advantage of the home court and get this thing back to bay.

Anything can happen in Game 7. But only if the Celtics get there.

This team hasn’t come this far to miss out on. A much-needed break is imminent. Until then, they must embrace the moment and let the adrenaline carry them to a finish line they hope they won’t reach before Sunday night.

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