Celtics vs. Warriors: Boston can still be NBA champion, but it has to show us something

Celtics vs. Warriors: Boston can still be NBA champion, but it has to show us something

Maybe there’s still hope for the Boston Celtics. But their best shot at claiming another banner is firmly in the past.

Sure, yes, of course — Boston can still technically win that series if they hold a home court in Game 6 Thursday night and then return to San Francisco and then place a W on the Warriors’ home court in Game 7 Sunday night.

However, they find themselves on the brink of elimination for betraying the surge of resilience and star-squeshing defense that brought them here. Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler are impressive wins as they power down and push past. Dealing with Steph Curry — and the real, brutal, rare, 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 pros from the champions. Whatever it is, it’s beaten the Celtics the last two games as well as Curry & Co.

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

As in Game 4, the Celtics went into the fourth quarter of Game 5 a single point down after a hard-fought back-and-forth. However, unlike in Game 4, Curry didn’t rise to single-handedly beat them. They did it well.

In Game 4, Boston was pushing for a 3-1 lead and all that that likely meant. Then Curry happened and on the other side of a 17-3 Warriors run to close out that game we were 2-2. Fine. Series still very much going. The thing about GOATs means you’ll probably have to contend with those big accomplishments; The key is how to weather the storm. But failure in Game 5 came with decidedly deadly Curry: 16 points, a 0-on-9 night from the 3-point line and no heroics in the fourth quarter.

Curry might have beaten them a few days earlier, but again that was just the Celtics, edgy, nervous and insecure, beating themselves. They coughed up four sales in the fourth quarter. They shot 27 percent from the field and lazy 25 percent from behind the arc. Tatum and Brown went off the field 2-of-9 together. they broke.

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

And their mistakes have come against a different breed of Warriors team than those who have fought for and won NBA championships in the past — a smaller one.

There’s no Kevin Durant who can save the Warriors on a curry-free night. Klay Thompson vacillated between mediocre and good, Draymond Green between terrible and mediocre. Jordan Poole has morphed back into a G-League player for long stretches. Andrew Wiggins was certainly excellent, but if you can’t beat a team in the NBA Finals on a night when Wiggins is the best player, you’re probably in big trouble.

Curry is curry, yes, except for the atypical night off he had on Monday. But Curry historically responds to bad plays in the playoffs with efficient nights of dominant, glorious offense.

“Well that’s good for us,” Green said after the game, having seen this story before. “He was 0-to-9 from 3. He’s going to be angry when he goes into Game 6 and that’s what we need.”

There are many Xs and Os to study, many numbers to tell the tale of large sample sizes and statistical realities of these two teams. There’s the game plans that Boston can and should make, to repeat what they’ve done well over long stretches of a series they should win, and so on.

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

But the real answer to how Boston is winning this thing is simple and two-fold: don’t let Curry beat you, and don’t beat yourself.

First: good luck. Curry, as I’ve written, is likely to end his career as the top 5 player of all time, an all-time talent all too often underestimated and earning the fees he deserves long after the fact. But he’s the best player on the floor this series, he’s shown he can win a game single-handedly when he needs to, and in Game 5 his teammates started offering the kind of help he gets all the time could have used. Curry, as Green said, will be angry Thursday night and he will be dangerous.

But the second point addresses why this streak feels over: No team can win a championship if it fades away the closer it gets. And the Celtics were a bundle of nerves and worries and poor play in the moments when a ring was over – turning the ball, playing hot potatoes without a star ready to seize the moment.

Tatum left much of this series. Brown had several lackluster second halves. Marcus Smart did not fill this gap. 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 feels like once too many.

The Celtics have a chance Thursday night, and as head coach Ime Udoka pointed out, they found themselves in that postseason position this postseason against last year’s champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, 3-2 down and on the verge of being eliminated.

But playoff basketball is about adjustments, and the ones Boston has to make we haven’t seen yet: The ability to conquer a series amid the most intense sense of hope and fear when something as rare as a championship presents itself .

We’ve seen enough to know that Steph Curry can do it. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics are still trying to understand how to compete with him when it matters most.