Just under five minutes remained in Monday’s Game 5 when a slight confrontation took place: Jayson Tatum, preparing to take a practice shot as the Celtics walked to the huddle for a timeout, was being impeded by Draymond Green and trailed by fellow Warrior Gary Payton II.
It was the sort of hounding, get-under-your-skin tactic that Green, in particular, is infamous for. And it prompted Tatum to hold onto the ball all the way to his seat on the bench, as he refused to let Green have it.
Tatum, who shot 1-for-5 in the decisive fourth period, essentially took his ball and went home in that sequence. And in a way, that’d be a much safer, better strategy than what ultimately played out and lost the game for the Celtics in Game 5.
Boston turned the ball over a whopping 18 times, which the Warriors—now one win away from a fourth title in eight years—cashed in for 22 points. By contrast, Golden State, which has long struggled with turnovers and, aside from Houston, gave the ball away more than anyone this season, committed just six giveaways on the night.
The result, of course, was the Celtics dropping a pivotal, winnable game—one in which:
- Tatum finally had it going
- Stephen Curry really didn’t have it going, shooting 0-for-9 from three, marking the first time in his playoff career he failed to notch one
- Boston not only avoided getting demolished in a third quarter, but even won it convincingly
On some level, we had indications of how the game would play out from the very jump. Green, far more aggressive than in the two games in Boston, assisted Otto Porter on a beautiful backdoor cut to open play, while Tatum flung the ball out of bounds on Boston’s first possession. Golden State got plenty of offense to start, even without Curry scoring much in the early going. Meanwhile, the Celtics struggled, throwing the ball all over the gym while missing their first 12 tries from deep.
Several turnovers were forced by the Warriors’ swarming defense. Green and Klay Thompson have been solid as helpers along the back line when the Celtics opt to go all the way into the teeth of Golden State’s attack. Wiggins has done about all you could ask for. Payton II is often undersized, but completely solid. Even Curry has done his part more often than not. Some of the mistakes were self-inflicted, looking like the lazy, head-scratching lollipop passes the Celtics often made during the three series that came before this one.
However you slice it, the extra possessions they handed the Warriors were amazingly costly in the following sense: The Celtics enjoy an unmistakable size advantage in the series; one they should have been able to capitalize on even more, given that Golden State’s Kevon Looney had early foul trouble.
But in Boston turning it over so frequently—both cutting its own possessions short, and allowing the Warriors to run in transition—the Celtics leave whatever opportunities they’d have for second-chance points on the table, and gift wrap chances for the Dubs to score without the fearsome Robert Williams hovering around their basket.
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Williams’s impact can’t be overstated here. Aside from the fact that he’s been great in the dunker spot when the Celtics’ offense breaks down the Warriors enough—Williams has shot 16-for-18, or 89% in this series—he’s also been an eraser on defense. In the Finals, Golden State has shot almost 13 percentage points worse than its average from inside of six feet when Williams is nearby, according to the NBA’s tracking data. More to the point, Williams is a plus-31 in the series thus far, meaning Boston has been 31 points better in his 126 minutes of on-court time, despite him playing at less than 100 percent. That reality played out again Monday, when he was a plus-11 in about 30 minutes of play. (The Celtics were beaten by 21 in the 18 minutes he didn’t play in Game 5.)
All told, Boston has turned the ball over 75 times in the Finals, 11 more than the turnover-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 the lack of offensive production from Al Horford and Derrick White. But the only number that’s generally mattered in this slog of a series, with defenses this elite, is turnovers. When Tatum and Brown are able to 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, on 18 dimes and 6 miscues. It was the case in Game 3, when Tatum and Brown combined for 14 assists against just four turnovers. And unsurprisingly, Boston took those contests. Golden State won Games 2, 4 and 5, when the Celtics’ stars had assist-to-turnover ratios of 1-to-1, 1-to-1 and 8-to-9.
If Golden State pulls it off to earn its fourth title in eight years, Curry’s performance—even with the Game 5 shooting struggles—will be seen as one of the best shooting displays we’ve seen on this stage before, particularly without the game-in, game-out help of a fully dependable second star. (We mean this as no disrespect, Andrew Wiggins.) Still, what Ime Udoka said after Game 4 holds true: The Celtics easily could have been up 3-1 despite Curry’s scorching showings if they’d merely played offense the way they’re capable of, without turning it over and forcing so much of the action.
Following that script can win Boston Game 6. The Celtics just have to be like Tatum on the way to that timeout huddle: refuse to hand it over to the Warriors, the way they have so many times throughout these Finals.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI this past week
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