SAN FRANCISCO — The Celtics players may not say they hear the narrative, but they do. They are of the social media generation, the one that has labeled Boston as chokers for its Game 4 collapse and labeled the Golden State Warriors as champion even though the series is tied, 2-2.
That’s what happens when a team loses an NBA Finals game, especially one at home, that could have meant control of the series. The next 48–72 hours are spent assigning labels to teams, players, and coaches.
The Celtics lack the experience and consistency to win a championship. Jayson Tatum is a good player, but still lacks the fortitude for greatness. Ime Udoka is not making the adjustments to keep Stephen Curry from dominating the series with his dazzling offensive arsenal.
These are labels that will be difficult to shake if the Celtics lose this series. They officially have three games to win two, with two at San Francisco’s Chase Center, beginning with Game 5 on Monday.
This is a critical game on the resumes of Tatum, Udoka, and the Celtics. Boston is 7-0 after losses and 8-3 on the road in the playoffs. The percentages say the Celtics should respond favorably, but they are facing a dynasty. A group of players led by Curry with championship mettle, and who have sensed vulnerability in their opponent.
The Celtics have proven to be a more talented team in the series, but not that better executing, and those offensive lapses filled with empty possessions and turnovers have to stop. Tatum has to make the most of his opportunities to score, eliminating low-percentage drives with hopes of getting a foul call. The Celtics have to be better.
They have no other choice.
For Tatum, this is the biggest game of his career, and one that could define his legacy. He is a first-team All-NBA player and a franchise cornerstone, but he’s shooting just 34.1 percent in the series and 27.5 on 2-point shots.
The Celtics have not received his best, and Tatum realizes the team’s success is tied to his escaping this malaise.
“Obviously I want to win by any means necessary and I’ll do whatever it takes,” Tatum said. “That’s all I really care about right now is winning. Whether you win or you don’t win, you guys will debate rankings or, you know, what does that matter for your legacy and things like that. That’s kind of not up to me. You know, in this moment, I’ve said it, I felt like every day, just trying to do what I can to impact winning by all costs.
“Yeah, it’s very mental. I think, just like I said, just the attention to detail and making the adjustments in game and having an awareness and not let things snowball — make the adjustments for next game after we lose, that we can be better at. But it’s a big test for us tomorrow. It’s like a new series, best of three. Excited for the challenge.”
Jaylen Brown claims the young team understands the immensity of this game and this series. They realize they blew Game 4 by scoring 7 points in the last 7:32 and falling into the alluring Curry trance as he wowed with bucket after bucket down the stretch.
It’s time for Tatum and Brown to offer signature moments of their own, avoid being part of the Warriors’ championship resume, and seize this title for their own.
“We know why we’re here. We know where we’re at. We know it’s the Finals,” Brown said. “We know the severity of the game. There’s no need to say things that are already understood. We know how important this game is and the energy that we need to come out with and how we need to set our team up and how we need to make plays and how we need to guard and defend. We know all the ins and outs. We’ve just got to come and do it and let everybody watch and witness.”
Udoka understands the consensus is the Celtics blew their opportunity to win the series. There may have never been such a lopsided public opinion on a 2-2 series. Each team has won their two games by double digits. Each team has displayed dominance at key moments. Each team has played regrettable and shoddy basketball in stretches.
“We obviously put ourselves in the position to stretch the lead and be up 3-1,” Udoka said. “But bottom line is we’re 2-2 and we earned that as well, not being down 0-2 or 1-2. And so I’m sure they said the same thing about Golden State after we beat them here. We know it’s a long series. Like I said, we’ve been battle tested in two seven-game series in Milwaukee and Miami.
“So for us, looking at the positives and things we could have done better. Not playing our best offense overall. I think the narrative gets shifted to Curry and what he’s doing. But in our wins and losses, they are scoring the same points.”
Udoka believes the Celtics’ success in this series is reliant on improved offense, not necessarily better defense on Curry. The Warriors have averaged 105.5 points per game, and Udoka will accept that total. The Celtics, however, have averaged 92.5 in their two losses, with Tatum shooting 16 for 42 from the field.
The Celtics need a better Tatum. It’s time to prove he understands that.
“Yeah, [Game 4] was a tough loss, and we understand that, and I think we’ve been here before,” he said. “This is the third time in a row I feel like we’ve been here. So we know what it takes. We know what we have to do and attention to detail and things like that. I’m confident like I have been all playoffs, confident in the fact that we’ll respond and play better for the majority of the game tomorrow.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.