BOSTON — Three times in this year’s NBA playoffs, the Boston Celtics were one loss away from going home for the summer. Three times in these playoffs the Celtics have found a way to extend their season – including two wins away.
As Boston prepares to host the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of Thursday night’s NBA Finals at TD Garden, the Celtics have a simple answer to why they’re confident of winning two more elimination games and the 2022 NBA championship to win :
“I think how we react to that,” said Jayson Tatum when asked what makes his team so resilient in such situations. “It wasn’t easy. It was extremely tough. We had some tough losses. Losing Game 5 to Milwaukee was extremely tough. Knowing we had to win two took a hit. Losing Game 6 to the Heat was extreme hard.
“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.”
Those losses Tatum was referring to — Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks and Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat — both came here in Boston, where the Celtics are just 6-5 this postseason .
Still, the Celtics are more than confident they can extend that streak into a seventh game Sunday – in part because when this team played like they know they’re capable, they looked like they were in control the procedure.
Even after the many deep playoff runs this young core has had this season, Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have all made at least three conference finals together. But it was the first season for coach Ime Udoka and his coaching staff, and Boston had to fight their way through the playoffs, knocking out Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler in the process.
“Everything was a learning experience,” Brown said. “We wear everything we’ve learned this year as a badge of honor that we kind of wear. We don’t let it hang over our heads. We’re recovering. We have been able to respond well throughout the year. We look forward to the challenge. We must accept them. There’s no other way around it. The last game on our home floor to embody our entire season. We want to give everything we have. We’re not scared. We’re not afraid of the Golden State Warriors, we want to come out and play the best version of basketball we can.
“We know it’s a good team over there. We know they’ve done it before. But we have all the faith in ourselves. We’re going to come out and leave it all out there. That is the whole intention.”
Another Celtics goal? Talk to the officers less. Boston had many animated conversations with the umpires in Game 5, including Ime Udoka, who caught a technical foul in the first quarter and struck up a conversation with veteran umpire Tony Brothers in the fourth, and Marcus Smart, who also caught a technical foul in the fourth, as Boston had its doors blown off and saw a lead quickly disappear late in the third quarter.
Both Udoka and several players insisted those moments are behind them and instead the focus in Game 6 is to put those things aside and focus on the action on the pitch.
“I think in general there are just too many conversations sometimes,” Udoka said. “It feels like after fouls or dead balls, free throws, time-outs, someone is talking to a referee. Something we emphasized earlier in the season and have come quite a way from.
“So something where we have to put our energy into the game and everything else in between, except the referees. An area where we can certainly be better.”
Speaking of things Boston can be better at, the other problem looming over this series is Boston’s revenue problem. If the Celtics have 15 or fewer turnovers in these playoffs, they’re 14-2.
But if they commit 16 or more? They are 0-7, including losses in Games 2, 4 and 5 of this series against the Warriors. Tatum has committed more turnovers than any other player in a single playoff in NBA postseason history.
Because of this, the Celtics have repeatedly said it will be their offense, not their defense against Stephen Curry, that will determine if they win an NBA title.
“I mean, if you look at the bigger picture, we’re defending well enough to win,” said Udoka. “It’s really some stagnant offensive breaks that really hurt us. We’ll have a quarter or two or three of really good basketball, then we’ll have a quarter or two that really hurt us. That was the fourth quarter a few games ago.
“Even in the last game when we took the lead, which we did well for the first 9, 10 minutes of the third quarter, we had a little slip at the end that allowed them to get back in. For us, we want to focus on offense because I think we have enough cover to win. Game 4, if we finish the game well, not in this five-minute stint, we’d be in good shape.
“That is our optimism.”