While Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had notably strong individual postseasons, the Celtics’ run to the NBA Finals was truly a collective effort that produced a large dose of heroic performances from their top role players. From Grant Williams frustrating Kevin Durant en route to a first-round win, to Al Horford discovering the Fountain of Youth and morphing back into 2018’s anti-Giannis Antetokounmpo weapon, to Derrick White who Terrorizing Miami’s guards with his ever-present defense, the Celtics have consistently found new answers to the challenges they faced during the playoffs.
That means they have until now. As the Celtics lost back-to-back games to the Golden State Warriors to bring themselves to the brink of elimination, their source of superlative role-playing contributions has largely dried up. Williams has seven fouls and just six points in 28 minutes in their last two games. Horford, now 36, has excelled in his efforts to keep the Warriors’ talented platoon of goalscorers at bay. White’s roller coaster ride of score variance has raced back down again. Boston’s rotation is running out of options.
That means this is the NBA Finals. The team that walks away with Larry O’Brien is almost always the team whose star players carry them there. Look no further than the Celtics opposition. With all due respect to Andrew Wiggins, it was a superb run from Steph Curry that has Golden State knocking on the door to a fourth championship. The Warriors got the streak they needed from their Superstar guard, while the Celtics — for various reasons — didn’t get the same from Tatum and Brown.
That will have to change. The bill is due, and if the Celtics are to stage a comeback against one of the NBA’s great dynasties, it has to start with their top two players.
In Tatum’s case, to simply say “just play better” is disingenuous. The factors behind his final troubles are more complicated than a simple slump. The Celtics have played a whopping 23 postseason games so far, a tally that will increase to 25 if they force a Game 7 against Golden State — just one short of the NBA record of 26 postseason games played set by the championship team in 2007 /08 was set up. Tatum has played every single one of those games, averaging a paltry 41 minutes per game over that span. That’s a number that makes even Paul Pierce’s 38-minute average look tame in 2008, let alone Steph Curry’s 34.5 this postseason. Tatum’s workload and responsibility has been absolutely immense, especially considering he’s still not recovered from the shoulder injury he sustained against Miami.
Unfortunately for Tatum, there just isn’t any slack on the rope. It’s overwhelmingly obvious that this team needs him. Though his goals have suffered, both of the team’s wins have been attributed in large part to his stellar play as floor general. This game has died down a bit since that point; The sales that have sometimes plagued him this postseason have gotten sloppier. Eventually, he increased his score in Game 5, amassing 27 points on 50% shooting, but he couldn’t hold it, fading the track and recording just one shot in the fourth quarter. He just looked exhausted.
Tatum is just too important for this offense; The Celtics are simply struggling to survive when he’s not playing, whether as a goalscorer or a host or both. Keeping it really fresh can be too much of a task; You just can’t afford to keep him on the bench for too long. With a few days off after losing Game 5, hope the shoulder feels a little better and the legs are a little livelier. But overall it just has to be a brave effort from a player who has already left so much on the pitch. If Tatum can score 30+ points in Game 6 with reasonable efficiency, the Celtics will gauge their chances well. He just has to find a way.
The pressure on Tatum could also be alleviated at least somewhat by a more consistent game from his co-star. There was a point in that series when the Celtics took a 2-1 lead where Jaylen Brown looked like the possible favorite to win the Finals MVP. This momentum has worsened in the subsequent two defeats; Brown has shot just 38% from the field since Game 3 and has faded into obscurity while the Celtics’ offense failed to break the 100-point barrier in either game.
Monday’s Clunker in Game 5 could very well be the worst playoff game of Brown’s young but successful postseason career. Brown almost completely played into Golden State’s hands; There were certainly some open threes, but most of his attempts were handicap rides in heavy traffic or high-difficulty pull-up jumpers. Even during Boston’s great third quarter, he was barely involved and only recorded a couple of layups. He shot 5 of 18 for the game, and many of his misses looked just as bad as that stat line.
The Celtics need the browns of Games 1 and 3 if they want to extend that streak. They need the version of Brown who assessed Draymond Green – one of the game’s most versatile defenders – and pulled him out of the dribble with ease. Overall, the Celtics aren’t naturally good at attacking the basket, which makes Brown’s rim pressure particularly valuable — especially as Tatum struggles to land on the rim due to his shoulder injury. Brown must attack the basket not only with aggression but also with strategy and then finish when he gets there. No more hopeless trips into heavy traffic, no more unbalanced prayers on the sidelines.
It’s extremely easy to say, of course, that if the Celtics extend this streak – let alone win it – they will need their Star Wing duo to lead the way. Improved performance from their role players would go a long way, whether it be someone catching fire from the deep (the Celtics have created some quality looks this series, even on their losses) or a schematic change by Ime Udoka creating new ones Possibilities. Robert Williams III emerges as the perennial X-Factor as he continues to battle his knee troubles, and of course they’ll have a seething TD Garden crowd behind them as they battle to force a Game 7 in San Francisco.
But sometimes basketball can really be that simple. Stars win games, and the Celtics stars can do more than they’ve shown. The cards are on the table and the season is at stake – 48 minutes to fight another day, 96 to make it into the history books. It’s time for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to save the Boston Celtics.