August 20, 2022

There may still be hope for the Boston Celtics. But their best chance of claiming another banner rests firmly in the past.

Of course, yes, of course – Boston can technically still win this series if they hold the home court in Game 6 on Thursday night, then return to San Francisco and then post a W on the Warriors court on Sunday night in the game. 7.

However, they find themselves on the brink of elimination because they betrayed the surge of resilience and star defense that brought them here. Stopping and fending off Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler are impressive wins. Dealing with Steph Curry – and the real, brutal, rare and surprising effect of trying to win an NBA title – is something else entirely.

Call it pressure. Call it fear. Call it the moment that separates the talented from the winners, the professionals from the champions. Either way, he’s beaten the Celtics in the last two games as much as Curry & Co. have.

Especially in Game 4, when the Warriors handed the Celtics a win on a silver platter. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and their teammates just couldn’t stand it.

As in Game 4, the Celtics entered the fourth quarter of Game 5 with just one point after a hard-fought back-and-forth. Unlike Game 4, however, Curry didn’t rise to beat them single-handedly. They did it very well.

In Game 4, Boston was building on a 3-1 series lead and all that probably meant. Then Curry came along, and on the other side of a 17-3 Warriors run to close this game, we sat at 2-2. Good. Series still very popular. Going against the GOATs means you’ll likely have to deal with those big performances; the key is knowing how to weather the storm. But the Game 5 failure came with the decidedly lethal Curry: 16 points, an 0-for-9 night from the 3-point line and no fourth-quarter heroics.

Curry might have beaten them a few days earlier, but it was just the Celtics, again, nervous, nervous and uncertain, beating themselves. They coughed up four turnovers in the fourth quarter. They shot 27% from the field and a putrid 25% from behind the arc. Tatum and Brown combined to go 2 of 9 from the field. They broke.

To win the next two games, they’ll have to do a lot more than defeat the Warriors and their all-time great star. The Celtics will have to overcome something within themselves that has turned the NBA’s best team into a shell of themselves in the fourth quarter in their last two outings.

And their failures came up against a different type of Warriors team than those who have competed and won NBA championships in the past – a lesser one.

There’s no Kevin Durant to bail out the Warriors on curry night. Klay Thompson oscillated between mediocre and good, Draymond Green between awful and average. Jordan Poole has long since returned to what looks a lot like a G-leaguer. Andrew Wiggins was great, sure, but if you can’t beat a team in the NBA Finals on a night where Wiggins is their best player, you’re probably in big trouble.

Curry is Curry, yes, aside from the unusual night off he had on Monday. But Curry historically responds to bad playoff games with effective nights of dominant and glorious offense.

“Now it’s good for us,” Green said after the game, having seen this story before. “He was 0-9 from 3. He’s going to be livid before Game 6, and that’s exactly what we need.”

There are a lot of X’s and O’s you can study, a lot of numbers that can tell the story of large sample sizes and the statistical realities of these two teams. There are the game plans Boston can and should make to replicate what they’ve done well for long stretches of a streak they should win, and so on.

But as two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas told me, that all goes out the window when the pressure is on. “The pressure is real,” he said. “Some players, some great players, can handle it. Some can’t.”

But the real answer to how Boston wins this thing is simple and twofold: Don’t let Curry beat you and don’t beat yourself.

On the first: Good luck. Curry, as I wrote, is likely to end his career as an all-time Top 5 player, an all-time talent too often underestimated, earning the dues he deserves long after the facts. But he’s the best player on the court in this series, he’s shown he can single-handedly win a game if need be, and in Game 5 his teammates started offering the kind of help he’s got. he could have used from the beginning. Curry, as Green said, is going to be livid Thursday night, and he’s going to be dangerous.

But the second point explains why this streak seems over: no team can win a championship if the closer they get to it, the faster they fade. And the Celtics have been a bundle of nerves, trepidation and poor play in times when a ring was at its closing – turning the ball over, playing hot potato, lacking a star ready to seize the moment.

Tatum has been absent from much of this series. Brown had several lackluster second halves. Marcus Smart did not fill this void. And you can only ask Al Horford and Derrick White once to save the day in a fourth quarter of an NBA Finals – and once is once too many.

The Celtics have a chance Thursday night, and as head coach Ime Udoka pointed out, they were in that exact position, down 3-2 and facing elimination, earlier this postseason against the Celtics. last year’s champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.

But playoff basketball is all about adjustments, and the one Boston needs to make is the one we haven’t seen them make yet: the ability to grab a streak, under the most intense feeling of hope and out of fear, when something as rare as a championship comes along.

We’ve seen enough to know that Steph Curry can. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics are still trying to figure out how to match him when it matters most.