BOSTON — The Celtics were still in control when the drought began.
They remained resilient throughout a huge first half from Stephen Curry. They at least avoided a catastrophe in the third quarter. They led by five points, at home, with a chance to extend the advantage. A bucket would have made the TD Garden crowd incoherent. That would have enveloped the Warriors in immense pressure.
Jayson Tatum dribbled right but ran into a Warriors double team. After retiring in a pick-and-roll, Tatum found himself isolated against Curry with the shot clock running out. Tatum created space with a step back but missed it all: the rim, the net and ultimately a chance to take full control of the NBA Finals.
When the Celtics needed their offense to step up — when they needed someone to match buckets with the incredible Curry — they produced too many broken possessions during a 107-97 loss in game 4.
“There are a lot of things we wish we had done differently, especially on the attacking side,” Tatum said. “I think we got too stagnant at the end of the fourth on everyone’s part.”
The Celtics did it again. This time they only scored six points in the final 7:32. They shot just 2 of 12 from the field during that streak, wasting an opportunity to create a split in the final. The series will go back to Golden State at 2-2 because the Celtics’ offense ended while Curry sprayed clutch shots through the net.
“I felt like we were taking possessions for granted,” Al Horford said. “I don’t feel like we executed as well as in the previous game. We really can’t do that.
Yet the Celtics did it consistently throughout the playoffs. Sometimes problems last for an entire game. Sometimes they appear just for a quarter at a time. During Game 4, they were quite persistent. Even before the fourth quarter, Boston struggled with turnover issues and uneven shot selection. As Ime Udoka said, “Every time we had a five or six point lead, we felt like we were making bad decisions.”
The Celtics don’t want to be like that. They would rather trample teams when they have an opening. They prefer to avoid the glitches they encountered regularly throughout the playoffs. They don’t try to commit turnovers or leave behind a trail of empty goods. Still, they have a habit of abandoning their offensive plan for long stretches, especially when they have a bit of a leash in a series.
“We kind of got into the playoffs,” Horford said.
Rewind the piece noted earlier. Before Tatum’s difficult attempt, the Celtics set him up for failure. Even after Kevon Looney crashed on the field during Warriors possession, Boston refused to pursue a transition opportunity. As Marcus Smart positioned himself to catch the out pass, Tatum stood in place nearby, about 90 feet from the Celtics’ basket. Derrick White started to come up the field but trotted when he could have sprinted. When the Celtics finally got past the half court, Tatum waited for his teammates to get in place to run a set. By the time he launched the offense with a pass to Smart, the Celtics had already wasted more than half of the shot clock. Tatum settled for a long, contested 2 because he didn’t have much to choose from.
“We wanted to get the ball in quickly and go into an attack,” Udoka said. “If we have nothing, make them work the clock. A lot of times we felt like we were there, unsure of who we were trying to pursue, and that led to these blocked possessions.
Curry put in an epic 43-point performance. The Warriors defense increased intensity and focus after Steve Kerr challenged his players to do so. Klay Thompson, still close to two devastating injuries, dug deep to make a number of defensive plays during the streak.
Even after all that, Udoka believed the Celtics went broke.
“The opponent is what he is,” Udoka said. “It concerns us a lot. That’s how we feel about tonight’s game, that’s for sure.
The Celtics have now lost huge home games in each of the last three series. In the second round, they needed to win back-to-back playoff games against Milwaukee after collapsing in the fourth quarter of Game 5. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics needed to capture Game 7 on the road after feeling a chance to win the series. in Game 6. Now they need to win two of the next three games against Golden State, including at least one on the road.
To do that, the Celtics will need to hone an offense that oscillates from bright to dark and back again.
“I have to be better,” Tatum said.
He does. Through four games in the Finals, Tatum is shooting just 34.3% from the field, including a brutal 14 of 51 (27.5%) from inside the arc. The Warriors sent him a lot of help. They used Andrew Wiggins, their best winger, against him. They sold out to stop Tatum, especially when he drove to the hoop. Somehow he has to get over it all. It’s the burden of stardom, especially this far into the playoffs.
“I know I impact the game in other ways,” Tatum said. “But I have to be more efficient, shoot the ball better, finish better on the rim. I take responsibility for that.
As Curry continued to create buckets for the Warriors offense, Tatum went 1 for 5 in the fourth, misfiring on his final four attempts of the game. After a 3-point go-ahead early in the quarter, he missed a turnover jumper on Nemanja Bjelica, then had the airball on Curry. Tatum made a great hoop cut soon after, but failed to finish on Thompson. After the Celtics fell behind 97-94, Tatum was far too strong on an early 3-pointer that would have tied the game.
He still found ways to help. He assisted on three of Boston’s seven field goals in the fourth quarter. He blocked two shots, including one from Curry. But when Curry kept scoring and the Celtics needed answers, their best player didn’t provide enough. Tatum finished with six turnovers, including one in the fourth.
“I give them credit, they’re a great team,” Tatum said. “They are playing well. They have a game plan, things like that. But it’s on me.
It’s also about the other Celtics. The team didn’t make a 2-pointer after Jaylen Brown’s layup with 7:32 left.
“We just have to stay organized,” Brown said. “It’s up to our veteran players to organize us in those times. Sometimes we get disorganized and encroach on each other. The kind of spacing closes in. That’s where some of these come from. bearings. We need to do a better job.
“I think we just got a bit stagnant,” White added. “Everyone was just standing there watching whoever had the ball, no player movement, no ball movement. We just need to do a better job running the stretch. I mean, that’s the difference in the game.”
A bad offense against Golden State often hurts twice. After Brown missed a one-legged float over Thompson with 4:36 left, two Celtics defensemen went to Curry in transition, leaving Thompson open for a 3-point go-ahead. But even after going scoreless for three minutes, Boston was still under three with 1:55 remaining. It was then that Horford clicked a 3-pointer off the top of the key, and Curry found Green spinning in midfield. Although the Celtics defended him well, Curry used their diverted attention to move for his seventh 3-pointer of the game:
The defense wasn’t even bad there. Most smaller guards wouldn’t even shoot against this type of contest, let alone drill it. But against Curry, a margin of error barely exists. Any team trying to bring down the Warriors, especially at this stage of the playoffs, has to deal with every possible detail.
The Celtics couldn’t meet that requirement in Game 4. True to their playoff form, they once again took the difficult route.
“We don’t do this shit on purpose,” Tatum said. “I promise you we won’t.”
Still, Boston’s losses all seem alike. This gave home advantage. That left the Warriors with every reason to believe. This put the Celtics back in an awkward position that must seem familiar by now. They will have to win another big one on the road because they couldn’t do it at home.
“We never said it was supposed to be easy,” Brown said. “We are just preparing for the next game. That’s it.”
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(Photo by Jayson Tatum: Paul Rutherford/USA Today)