SAN FRANCISCO — The Celtics have reverted back to their early season form, where coach Ime Udoka has no idea what to expect from his team on any given night. The difference is this is the NBA Finals and there is no margin for inconsistency and erratic play.
Yet, the Celtics approached the biggest game of their careers as if it were a preseason scrimmage, allowing the Golden State Warriors to impose their will, make the opening statement, and force them to chase.
They responded with a brilliant third quarter only to fall apart in the fourth. Jayson Tatum missed free throws. Jaylen Brown was putrid the whole night. Marcus Smart lost his temper, picking up a technical after a Warriors foul. The turnover parade continued, with the Celtics flipping low-percentage passes or simply losing their dribble.
Their 104-94 loss to the Warriors at Chase Center was the definition of discouraging. The Celtics played stellar defense against Stephen Curry but had no answer for Andrew Wiggins. They were able to get to the free throw line but they missed 10 attempts, including Tatum’s 2 for 6 night at the line.
Tatum showed flashes of playing a statement game but then was beset by silly turnovers and, possibly, fatigue. In rhythm, his stepback, open 3-point attempt sailed out of bounds without touching anything, an embarrassing airball.
It seems the Celtics’ weaknesses are coming back with a vengeance on the biggest stage. They committed an inexcusable 18 turnovers – Golden State had seven – and received a combined 4 points from their second unit.
Perhaps there’s too much pressure on Tatum and Brown at this point in their careers. Brown began by missing eight of his first 10 shots and never looked comfortable. Tatum, looking to atone for his disappointing Game 4, did not score until the 2:06 mark of the first period and was never the best player on the floor.
That was Wiggins, who finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds and got anything he wanted offensively. This vaunted Celtics defense is showing cracks. The Warriors are gashing Boston with the extra pass or dribble penetration for floaters.
What’s more, the Warriors were 32 of 48 on 2-point shots. They are getting by Boston’s initial line of defense and scoring in the paint. The Celtics don’t seem capable of doing the same. They are only cohesive offensively when the 3-point shot is falling.
For example, the Celtics were 5 for 23 from beyond the arc in the first, second and fourth quarters. When they rallied to take the lead in a 35-point third period, they were 6 for 9.
Golden State won despite missing 31 of 40 3-point attempts. The Warriors can do more than shoot the three. The Celtics, at this point can’t, that’s the difference in the series.
“I think they did some things to kind of take us out of our spots,” Brown said. “But overall, physicality [has] got to be better from the jump. We were looking around expecting somebody to bail us out. We just got to be stronger, more physical, more dominant, get to the paint, and make somebody stop you. I know we’re capable of it. We just got to do it.”
Udoka is running out of explanations. Why did his team fall behind 24-8 in such an important game? Why do they have so much trouble with officials? Why can the Warriors convert on their midrange jumpers but the Celtics are shooting bricks?
“Yeah, hard to explain that start,” a dumbfounded Udoka said. “I mean, we lacked the physicality early. They took the fight to us a little bit early. We were struggling to finish in the paint. So that was pretty evident early on.
“Obviously, we had the third quarter. Then the fatigue could have played a part in the fourth. Poor start overall. That’s hard to explain, why that is. But we got back in. Turnovers, missed free throws, some of the things obviously, a little bit of talking to the refs too much didn’t help us in the fourth.”
Again the Celtics allowed shaky officiating to affect them. Grant Williams was called for a foul on Gary Payton II, who tripped over his own two feet on a drive. Jordan Poole flopped before an inbounds pass to Smart and drew an offensive foul.
Smart was pushed away by a Klay Thompson forearm, and the officials made no call, allowing Thompson to shoot and make an uncontested 3-pointer. But Boston attempted 16 more free throws than the Warriors. The officials didn’t miss 10 of those free throws.
Tony Brothers didn’t turn the ball over 18 times. Marc Davis didn’t miss 12 consecutive 3-pointers.
The Celtics are just blowing this. They are lacking mental toughness. They are letting every outside distraction affect them, while the Warriors just keep trucking. It’s a shame because when they are engaged and focused, the Celtics are the more talented team.
“Yeah, not our best moment,” forward Al Horford said of the lack of composure. “As you guys know, I feel like we’ve been able to fend those things off, especially throughout the playoffs. For whatever reason tonight I feel like it got to us. It’s one of those things that we kind of brought it back. We were able to focus back in, but we can never let that get to us. We can’t let that affect our game, the way that things are being played.”
What’s most demoralizing is the Celtics made up for all their first-half gaffes with a brilliant third quarter, building a 5-point lead before another late-quarter breakdown, where they stopped playing after a Tatum miss, allowing Jordan Poole to end the period with a 38-foot bank shot for a 1-point lead.
The Celtics would never lead again. They melted down in the fourth quarter, exhausted from a long season, with too much focus on the officiating, unable to overcome a team that prides itself on execution.
So here they are, with no margin left, no more room for lackadaisical starts or silly turnovers. No more excuses. Win two or go home. They don’t seem up to the task.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.