Strange but true: the cumulative score of these NBA Finals — tied 2-2 with tonight’s Game 5 between the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics mere hours away — is 422-421, Warriors. Both teams have made 64 three-pointers; the Celtics have shot 42 percent from beyond the arc, and The Warriors, 39 percent. Golden State has just one more offensive rebound than Boston; they’ve turned the ball over on one less trip. Watching these games as they happen, you may not have walked away thinking that the series was almost exactly even, despite it being 2-2. But if the numbers are any indication, this series is about as even as it gets.
And yet, as we do with every series, we’re itching for something to give. At some point, with just about everything, something’s gotta. No better time for the tide to turn yet again than the fifth game of a tied best-of-seven series. Ahead of tip-off on Monday — 9 p.m. ET on ABC, but plan on it being closer to 9:17 or 11:45, whenever the pregame show is done — we’re taking a look at three things to keep an eye on as game time nears.
When will Jayson Tatum have his seminal Finals moment?
Against Brooklyn, it came in the dying embers of Game 1. Trailing 114-113, Marcus Smart rejected a shot, then a drive, and instead, found a cutting Jayson Tatum, who spun away from Kyrie Irving’s reach and into a seamless layup at the buzzer. It gave Boston a 115-14 win in Game 1, and Tatum his first big moment of these playoffs just one game in.
Then came Game 6 in Milwaukee, when Tatum stared down the God of Death and told it, “not today.” He exploded for 46 points in a do-or-die tilt against the Bucks, who seemed all but packed for a trip to Miami. It was the best performance of Tatum’s young postseason career, and it came at the best time. If Homer were writing an Odyssean epic about Tatum’s career, the dunk over LeBron in 2018 would be the time Zeus spared Odysseus but killed the rest; Tatum’s incredible night in Game 6 against Milwaukee would be when he nearly reached Ithaca after blinding Polyphemus.
The Miami series didn’t exactly belong to Tatum, but he still had his fair share of great moments, enough to warrant him being awarded the inaugural Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP trophy. He seemed supercharged, like a man on a mission; a man who, while still the age of a boy, looked prepared to conquer the mountaintop. To reach his Ithaca, once and for all.
Tatum has yet to have a moment like any of the above in the NBA Finals. It feels like a “when”, not an “if.” But time is running out on this series, and if the Celtics hope to win it, they’ll need some sort of peak Tatum performance to get them there. The collective outings from four or five players have served them well, but sometimes, it’s the nudge of a superstar a team requires to truly work its way over the hump. And when that hump has Steph Curry, that job can be even harder.
Not only has Tatum failed to have his superstar moment, but he’s hardly performed to his typical standards, nor to the standards of a teammate like, say, Derrick White. He’s 14-of-51 from two-point range for the series. While he’s averaging 22.3 points while shooting 33.4 percent overall (42.5 percent from three) with 7.8 assists and 7.0 rebounds through four games, those numbers trail his regular-season averages, and even his averages from the first three series’, by a decent margin. Tatum is still Boston’s best player, and perhaps the best player in this series. But he hasn’t looked like it from a scoring perspective so far.
He’s also struggled to maintain a harmonious relationship between his scoring ability and his willingness to create for others. In Game 1, he was able to counter his poor shooting — three-of-17, in case you had forgotten — with a masterful passing performance, dishing out 13 assists. Yet while he's scored 28, 26, and 23 in the three ensuing games of the series, he’s found himself struggling to make the sound decisions he’s made so many times before this season, those that inspired the masses to praise him for his improvement as a passer. He still drives and flails instead of driving and kicking, or simply going up strong. Much of the worst of these tendencies were on display in Game 4.
Ime Udoka said it himself after the loss on Friday: “At times he’s looking for fouls.” This isn’t the time for that. Frankly, at this stage in his career, it shouldn’t ever be the time for the superstar-adjacent Tatum to be hunting for contact when a better opportunity is out there. Perhaps it’s the stage on which he’s playing — and has yet to take control of — that causes a brief bit of pause when it comes to anointing the All-NBA first-teamer with his deserved superstar status. But until he delivers the sort of performance he’s proven capable of with the lights the brightest and the moment the direst, questions about that status will remain.
There’s no better time than the present, right? There’s absolutely no more important time than with the Finals tied and the opportunity to have a closeout game on your home floor. It’s Tatum’s moment to grasp. We’re all just waiting on what we know to be possible, if not inevitable.
How is Rob Williams III moving?
You can read this question two different ways. The first — the way that I’ve intended it to be read — is how a doctor might inquire about your recent injury: “How’s it feeling lately?” “How are you moving on it? Take a few steps, just so I can see?” It’s a qualitative assessment more than anything. But the second way sounds a little more like this: “How in the world is he moving?!”
As it pertains to Rob, they both apply. The concern that comes with the ever-questionable Williams — who has battled through constant pain and discomfort in his left knee ever since returning from his partially torn MCL injury in the Miami series — is how reliable can he be over the course of four quarters on a game-to-game basis. Time and again in this series, we’ve seen Boston’s big man deliver energetic outings, one after another. That was especially prevalent in Game 3, when Williams reminded the Warriors of his most threatening skills in a brilliant performance.
But by the time the fourth quarter has rolled around, he’s had to limit his action. In Game 1, he played just over five minutes in the fourth. In Game 2, a blowout, to be fair, he saw less than four minutes of action in the final frame. Game 3, he almost hit 10 minutes, though he grimaced through every sprint and had many an online onlooker noting that he looked as though he could hardly move. In Game 4, he played just over eight minutes in the fourth, but again, struggled with his mobility and looked ready to collapse into a bucket of ice every time he had to pivot.
At this point in the season, being safe rather than sorry isn’t really an option, so the question here isn’t whether or not Williams should play, but when he should be resting. Early on in Game 4, he looked like he might pour in yet another incredible evening of putbacks and defensive prowess, but as time wore on, he was leaping less and favoring his left knee far more frequently. Perhaps intermittent resting periods are the way forward as his injury continues to nag. But if Williams begins to slow down as the series wears on, it could be hard for the Celtics to respond accordingly on the glass.
Who helps carry the scoring burden for Golden State? Is it even that simple?
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Stephen Curry continues to propel Golden State forward in this series, all the way to their fourth title since 2015. He was the reason they won Game 4, for all intents and purposes, and had the Celtics won that game — and gained a 3-1 advantage in the series — you’d have plenty of reason to view the franchise’s 18th banner as all but hung in the rafters. Instead, they head to San Francisco in a deadlock with the mighty Warriors and their homegrown hero leading the way.
Who has flanked him in battle to this point, though? A combination of guys, but none all that well. Curry’s scoring average in this series (34.2) is more than the combined averages of the next two highest-scoring Warriors, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins (33.8). Curry has 137 points over four games series; Thompson has 69. The “Poole Party” lineup has fallen by the wayside, for the most part. Draymond Green was benched in favor of Kevon Looney in Game 4.
In a pinch — if the Celtics can somehow deter Curry from creating at the clip he’s been able to thus far — the Warriors are likely to turn to Jordan Poole or Klay Thomspon. They’re the two most capable scorers on the roster after Curry, and the two who can catch fire the easiest. Poole nailed that silly 38-footer at the end of the third quarter in Game 2 that meant more to Twitter than it did the Warriors’ win. And Thompson has yet to really arrive in this series; perhaps he’s just waiting on Game 6.
But might the Warriors be better off leaving major production to their rotation as a whole rather than hoping for one or two players to take on a 25-point burden themselves? Between Andrew Wiggins, who scored 7 points and 16 rebounds in the Game 4 win in Boston and has found a groove in this postseason with the Warriors that perhaps no one saw coming beforehand, and Kevon Looney, whose hands appear to function as magnets on the offensive glass, Golden State has enough to counter whatever defensive attention Boston might throw at one or two primary scorers. That certainly doesn’t mean that Golden State has an infallible rotation, one that Boston stands no chance of overpowering with the talent they boast on their side. But as a unit, the Warriors have played efficiently opposite Curry’s nightly masterclasses. They may not be lighting the world on fire as individuals, but by doing the little things incredibly well, they’ve done enough to make this a 2-2 series.
After Monday’s Game 5 matchup, someone will lead 3-2. Find out who at 9 p.m. on ABC.