While Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have had remarkably strong individual postseasons, the Celtics’ run to The NBA Finals has really been a collective effort, featuring a heavy dose of heroic performances from their top role players. From Grant Williams frustrating Kevin Durant en route to a first round sweep, to Al Horford discovering the Fountain of Youth and morphing back into the anti-Giannis Antetokounmpo weapon of 2018, to Derrick White terrorizing Miami’s guards with his omnipresent defense, the Celtics have consistently found new answers to the challenges they’ve been presented with throughout the playoffs.
That is, they have until now. As the Celtics have lost consecutive games against the Golden State Warriors to put themselves on the brink of elimination, their well of superlative role player contributions has largely dried up. Williams has seven fouls and just six points in 28 minutes across the last two games. The now-36-year-old Horford has looked outmatched in his efforts to help keep the Warriors’ talented platoon of scoring guards in check. White’s rollercoaster ride of scoring variance has hurtled back down once again. Boston’s rotation is running out of options.
That said, this is The NBA Finals. The team that walks away with the 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’s been a transcendent series from Steph Curry that has Golden State knocking on the door of a fourth championship. The Warriors have gotten the series they’ve needed from their superstar guard, while the Celtics have — for a variety of reasons — not gotten the same from Tatum and Brown.
That’s going to have to change. The bill has come due, and if the Celtics are going to mount a comeback against one of the NBA’s great dynasties, it’s going to have to start with their two best players.
In Tatum’s case, it’s disingenuous to simply say “just play better.” The factors behind his Finals woes are more complicated than a simple slump. The Celtics have played a whopping 23 postseason games thus far, a number which 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 2007-08 championship team. Tatum has played every single one of those games, and averaged a ludicrous 41 minutes per game in that span of time. That’s a number that makes even Paul Pierce’s 38-minute average in 2008 look tame, let alone Steph Curry’s 34.5 this postseason. Tatum’s workload and responsibility has been absolutely immense, especially considering he still hasn’t recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered against Miami.
Unfortunately, there’s just no slack on the rope for Tatum. It is overwhelmingly apparent that this team needs him. Even as his scoring has suffered, both of the team’s wins came in large part due to his stellar play as a floor general. That playmaking has slipped a bit since that point; the turnovers that have plagued him at times this postseason have become sloppier. He finally upped his scoring output in Game 5, picking up 27 points on 50% shooting, but he wasn’t able to sustain it, fading down the stretch and recording just one made basket in the fourth quarter. He just looked exhausted.
Tatum is simply too important to this offense; the Celtics simply struggle to survive if he’s not making plays, whether as a scorer or a facilitator or both. Truly keeping him fresh may be too tall a task; you just can’t afford to have him on the bench for too long. With a few days off after the Game 5 loss, you hope the shoulder feels a little better and the legs a little more spry. But overall, it’s simply going to have to be a gutsy effort from a player who has already left so much on the court. If Tatum can go for 30+ points on reasonable efficiency in Game 6, the Celtics will be feeling good about their chances. He’s just going to have to find a way.
The pressure on Tatum might also be mitigated, at least somewhat, with more consistent play from his co-star. There was a point in this series, with the Celtics ahead 2-1, where Jaylen Brown looked like the possible favorite to win Finals MVP. That momentum has cratered in the ensuing two losses; Brown has shot just 38% from the field since Game 3, fading into anonymity while the Celtics’ offense failed to crack the 100-point threshold in either outing.
Monday’s clunker in Game 5 may very likely be the worst playoff game of Brown’s young-but-accomplished postseason career. Brown played into Golden State’s hands almost completely; there were some open threes, sure, but the majority of his attempts were stymied drives in heavy traffic or high-difficulty pull-up jumpers. Even during Boston’s big third quarter, he was scarcely involved, recording just a pair of layups. He shot 5-of-18 for the game, and a lot of his misses looked just as bad as that stat line does.
The Celtics need the Brown of Games 1 and 3 if they want to extend this series. They need the version of Brown that was sizing up Draymond Green — one of the game’s most versatile defenders — and taking him off the dribble with ease. As a whole, the Celtics are not inherently great at attacking the basket, which makes Brown’s rim pressure particularly valuable — especially with Tatum struggling to finish at the rim through his shoulder injury. Brown needs to attack the basket not just with aggression, but with strategy, and then finish when he gets there. No more hopeless drives into heavy traffic, no more off-balance prayers at the rim.
It is, of course, exceedingly simplistic to say that if the Celtics are going to extend this series — let alone win it — they’re going to need their star wing duo to lead the way. Improved performance from their role players would go a long way, whether that’s someone catching fire from deep (the Celtics have created quite a few quality looks in this series, even in their losses) or a schematic change on the part of Ime Udoka that creates new possibilities. Robert Williams III looms as a perpetual X-factor as he continues to fight through his knee troubles, and of course, they’ll have a frothing-at-the-mouth TD Garden crowd behind them as they fight to force a Game 7 in San Francisco.
Sometimes, though, basketball really can just be that simple. Stars win games, and the Celtics’ stars are capable of more than they’ve shown. The cards are on the table and the season is on the line — 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.