The NBA Finals were a blessing for this Boston Celtics squad. After years of near misses, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown finally led their team to an Eastern Conference championship and earned the right to compete for this biggest prize in basketball.
Unfortunately, their opponents were the Golden State Warriors, a team that knows what it takes to hoist a Larry O’Brien trophy and who excel in rattling their opponents by getting inside their heads throughout the course of a series. For all the rhetoric surrounding a poor series for Tatum or a clearly struggling Robert Williams, the truth is, Golden State won the mental battles; they won because they knew how to get under Boston’s skin — the problem is, they still do.
When the Celtics rolled into San Francisco in early December, they were full of confidence, fresh off victories over the Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, and Phoenix Suns. Up to that point, the Celtics had only lost five games, and only once had they lost on back-to-back occasions.
Yet, against the Warriors, the weight of that fateful Finals still weighed heavily, and throughout the 48-minute contest, Boston began to crumble as Golden State slowly amped up the pressure. What followed was the worst run of games in Boston’s season thus far. Losses to the LA Clippers, Orlando Magic (twice), and Indiana Pacers all followed in quick succession as the Celtics looked gutted of confidence, and their free-flowing offense began to regress to seasons of old.
It was two weeks until we began to see the return of Mazzulla-ball and a confident swagger on the court. Two weeks of tough losses. Two weeks of questionable performances. All because the Warriors won the mind games...again.
Worryingly, things look strikingly similar heading into Thursday's game, where the Celtics will be hoping to even up the season series 1-1. Boston hasn’t lost since their January 3 defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder and come into their game against the defending NBA champions on a seven-game heater.
Now is the time for Jayson Tatum & co. to dispel the demons of last summer. To prove to themselves that they can not only hang with but defeat the Warriors. Usually, I would argue that a regular season win against a Western Conference foe you see twice a year doesn’t mean much, but on this occasion, it means everything.
Sometimes, you just need to get over the hump, to face up to that outspoken bully in the office or classroom and to stand your ground in the face of adversity. Memories of Golden States celebrations should still be fresh in all our minds, especially that of the players who spent the summer mourning an opportunity they feel passed them by.
Assuming Jaylen Brown is healthy and cleared to play, the Celtics will be at full strength for this contest. Importantly, it’s worth noting that Brown is usually the one player Golden State struggles to slow down — he went for 31 in their December meeting and averaged 23.5/7.3/3.7 during their playoff series, with shooting splits of 43.1/34/80.6.
Robert Williams looks to be returning to his impressive best, which, when compared to his limited ability during the postseason, is a significant factor, and of course, Malcolm Brogdon has settled into the rotation that little bit more. The Celtics have all the tools and all the talent necessary to overcome an aging Warriors squad and finally put their six-game series to bed in their minds.
Of course, Tatum’s performance will likely have a significant impact on the outcome of the game; if anyone needs to see the ball drop early and often, it’s him. However, the Warriors' mental edge stretches far beyond Tatum, and for the Celtics to be successful, they will need to stick to the gameplan that’s seen them amass the best record in the NBA, with one of the most balanced offense-to-defense approaches in the league.
Thursday’s game in the TD Garden is not just the 46th game of their season, it’s potentially the most important game of their season. Because should Golden State do what they always do and figure things out in the post-season, we could potentially see a repeat of last year’s summer classic, and for Boston, the last thing you want is to go into that series having not won a game against them since Game 3.
The Celtics have a chance to break the curse the Warriors have hanging over them. Hopefully, they continue to play their brand of basketball and prove that they’re the better, deeper team and that they’re ready for whatever gets thrown at them come playoff time.