SAN FRANCISCO — Ime Udoka has drawn some attention during these NBA Finals for his blunt — and, oh, let’s go with “vivid” as the euphemism — approach to telling his players what he thinks when they’re performing poorly, or selfishly, or like … well, you know.
But as tempting as it might be for the Celtics coach to break out the thesaurus and pepper them with all the derisive adjectives they have coming their way after Monday’s maddening 104-94 loss to the Warriors in Game 5, a different kind of bluntness is warranted as this often remarkable but too often frustrating season dangles in the balance.
Udoka needs to summon a Herb Brooks speech before Game 6. No, not the fictional one beautifully delivered by actor Kurt Russell while portraying Brooks, the 1980 US Olympic hockey coach, in the film “Miracle.” Not the one before the staggering upset of the Soviet Union that begins, “Great moments are born from great opportunity …”
Not the one you know. I’m talking about the one the real Brooks delivered in the gold-medal game against Finland: “If you lose this game,” said Brooks, “you’ll take it to your [expletive] graves.” He paused, and reiterated: “Your [expletive] graves.” The US scored three third-period goals to come from behind for a 4-2 win. They won the gold, of course, and vanquished the possibility of a lifetime of regrets.
Perhaps circumstances will not prove that heavy for the Celtics should they lose this series. But they must summon the best of themselves, now. Or no matter what they accomplish over the rest of their basketball careers, they will always wonder what might have been if they hadn’t been so self-destructive in Games 4 and 5 of the 2022 Finals.
The Celtics are a relatively young team at their core, save for 36-year-old Al Horford. Maybe there will be other opportunities to fly an 18th banner while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown grow into their primes. But it is such a relentless grind just to get here — to sweep Kevin Durant and the Nets in the first round, to vanquish Giannis Antetokounmpo and the champion Bucks in the conference semis, to outlast a tough, top-seeded Heat team in the East finals, and then to be up, 2-1, in the NBA Finals, only to lose the next two games with bizarre but hardly uncharacteristic stretches of grotesque basketball — that only a fool would forget to respect the journey.
It’s so difficult just to arrive at this moment, where a championship is within reach. Yet too often in these last two games, the Celtics have played the fool. In Game 4, they led, 94-90, with 5:18 left. They hit one of their final eight shots and lost, 107-97, blowing a chance to take a 3-1 lead on the proud Warriors.
Then to open Game 5, they shot 8 of 23 in the first quarter, missed all five of their 3-point attempts (on the way to missing their first 12), missed their only free throw, and had more turnovers (4) than assists (3). How they were down only 11 (27-16) after the first 12 minutes is a mystery.
The Celtics eventually did figure it out, if all too briefly. They somehow avoided their usually abysmal third quarter, scoring the first 10 points and eventually tying the score at 55-55 on a Marcus Smart 3-pointer before taking their first lead on a Horford three at 6:27.
They built the lead to 66-61 … and then it all collapsed.
The Warriors ripped off a 24-8 run, scoring the first 10 points of the fourth quarter, and the Celtics went all-in on all of their lousy old routines — “I’ve got this” offense, loss of composure with the officials, and carelessness with the ball (18 turnovers and 18 assists in Game 5).
The Celtics say they trust each other on the court, and that they learned their lessons from their 18-21 start to the season. So why do these ugly flaws come roaring back when just a little discipline and composure would put them on the verge of realizing a championship dream? They play as if there are bonus points for degree of difficulty.
The Celtics were supposed to be the deeper team in this series. The Warriors have the best player in Stephen Curry, the theory went, but the Celtics have more quality players. Yet here we are, with the Warriors looking like the deeper and more well-rounded team.
Andrew Wiggins (26 points, 13 rebounds in Game 5) is doing the things Jaylen Brown is supposed to do, while Jaylen Brown (5 for 18 from the field, 5 turnovers) is doing the things Ricky Davis used to do. Klay Thompson has hit 9 of 21 3-point attempts over the past two games, and at least seven of them felt like daggers.
You know whom the Warriors remind me of? The 2018 Patriots. They’re not quite what they once were, but no moment is too big for them, and they can still summon greatness.
And yet … it’s not over, not yet. It’s easy to forget when they’re driving you crazy with the same old nonsense that made you tune them out back in January, but the Celtics have done some extraordinary things to get to this point. They beat Milwaukee in Game 6 on the Bucks’ turf before finishing them off in Game 7 at the Garden. They won Game 7 in Miami. And it was just a couple of days ago that they were up, 2-1, in this series. They looked convincingly like the superior team.
They can win Game 6. There’s still a chance, despite how all of this feels right now. But the nonsense needs to end. Or all they’ll take away from this amazing run is that lasting lament about how close they came and what might have been.