Almost five minutes remained in game 5 on Monday when a light confrontation took place: Jayson Tatum, preparing for a practice shot as the Celtics headed into the huddle for a time-out, was crippled by Draymond Green and pursued by fellow warrior Gary Payton II.
It was the kind of hounding and under-the-skin tactics that Green, in particular, is notorious for. and it prompted Tatum to hold onto the ball until his spot on the bench when he refused to let Green have it.
Going 5-1 in the crucial fourth period, Tatum essentially took his ball and went home in that order. And in a way, that would be a much safer, better strategy than what ultimately played out and the Celtics lost in Game 5.
Boston turned the ball a whopping 18 times, which the Warriors – now one win away from a fourth title in eight years – conceded for 22 points. In contrast, Golden State, which has long struggled with turnovers and has given away the ball more than anyone other than Houston this season, committed just six giveaways that night.
The result, of course, was that the Celtics lost a crucial, winnable game – one in which:
- Tatum had finally made it
- Stephen Curry Yes, really didn’t have it going, shooting 9-0 from three, marking the first time in his playoff career that he missed a goal
- Boston not only avoided being demolished in a third quarter, but actually won it convincingly
In a way, we had clues as to how the game was going to end from the start. Green, much more aggressive than in the two Boston games, assisted Otto Porter with a nice backdoor cut to open the game while Tatum spun the ball wide on Boston’s first possession. Golden State got a lot of offense early on, even without Curry scoring much early on. Meanwhile, the Celtics struggled, throwing the ball all over the gym while missing their first 12 attempts from deep.
Several turnovers were forced by the Warriors’ swarming defense. Green and Klay Thompson were solid helpers up the defensive line as the Celtics decided to go all the way in the teeth of Golden State’s attack. Wiggins has done everything you could ask for. Payton II is often undersized but rock solid. Even curry has done its bit more often. Some of the mistakes were self-inflicted and looked like the lazy, head-scratching lollipop passes the Celtics often made in the three series leading up to this one.
However you slice it, the additional possessions they presented to the Warriors were surprisingly costly in the following senses: The Celtics enjoy an unmistakable advantage of scale in the series; one they should capitalize on even more considering Golden State’s Kevon Looney struggled early.
But in Boston, which turns it over so frequently — both by shortening its own possessions and allowing the Warriors to run in transition — the Celtics are leaving on the table whatever opportunities they might have for second-chance points and chances for scoring the dubs as gift wrap without the fearsome Robert Williams floating around their basket.
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William’s influence cannot be overstated here. Aside from the fact that he was great in the dunker spot when the Celtics’ offense crushed the Warriors enough — Williams has shot 16-to-18, or 89% that series — he was also an eraser on defense. According to NBA tracking data, Golden State shot almost 13 percentage points worse than average from six yards in the finals when Williams is nearby. More importantly, Williams is up 31 in the series so far, meaning Boston was 31 points better in his 126 minutes on the court despite playing at less than 100 percent. That reality played out again on Monday when he had an 11 plus in about 30 minutes of play. (The Celtics were beaten by 21 points in the 18 minutes that he didn’t play in Game 5.)
Overall, Boston turned the ball 75 times in the Finals, 11 times more than the turn-prone Warriors. We can analyze everything under the sun, from Tatum’s struggles inside the arc to Jaylen Brown’s occasional ball-handling issues to Al Horford’s and Derrick White’s lack of offensive performance. But the only number that generally matters in this mess of a series, with defenses from this elite, is turnovers. If Tatum and Brown can spray the ball around without committing them — like they did in the third period — the Celtics win.
That was the case in Game 1, when the duo managed a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio with 18 dimes and 6 miscues. Such was the case in Game 3 when Tatum and Brown combined for 14 assists against just four turnovers. And unsurprisingly, Boston took part in these competitions. Golden State won Games 2, 4 and 5 as the Celtics’ Stars had assist-to-turnover ratios of 1-1, 1-1 and 8-9 respectively.
If Golden State manages to win its fourth title in eight years, Curry’s performance — even with the gunfights in Game 5 — will be considered one of the best gunnery displays we’ve seen on this stage to date, especially without the game. In, game-out help from a totally reliable second star. (We don’t mean that disrespectfully, Andrew Wiggins.) Still, what Ime Udoka said after Game 4 stands: The Celtics could have easily gone 3-1 despite Curry’s searing performances if only they’d played as offensively as they did are able to flip it over without forcing as much of the action.
If you follow this script, you can win Boston Game 6. The Celtics just have to be like Tatum on their way to that timeout huddle: refuse to hand it over to the Warriors like they’ve done so many times during these Finals.
Meat and Potatoes: Good readings from SI this past week
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