SAN FRANCISCO — Jayson Tatum walked slowly into his post-game press conference Monday night wearing a white T-shirt featuring images of a roaring Tiger Woods. In the decals the golfer is wearing his Sunday reds, his signature attire for finishing off opponents in the final rounds of tournaments.
About an hour earlier, the Celtics were presented with a sparkling opportunity to do the same in Game 5 of these NBA Finals against the Warriors. They’d pushed aside their third-quarter struggles for a night, roared back from a double-digit deficit, and positioned themselves to strike.
With one more powerful quarter, they’d be able to return home to Boston with a chance to claim the franchise’s first NBA championship since 2008. With one more powerful quarter, the opportunity in front of them would have been massive.
Instead, with struggling Golden State superstar Stephen Curry watching from the bench, the Warriors regained control with a 13-0 run and rolled to a 104-94 win that gave them a 3-2 series lead. Boston’s first two-game losing streak of these playoffs could not have come at a worse time.
The Celtics, for the third consecutive series, will now face at least one elimination game. They will go home to Boston for Thursday’s Game 6, and a win in that game would just give them the right to come back here to this wild, rowdy arena to do it once more. In a season full of significant challenges and roadblocks, this is now the biggest one.
“Your faith has got to be at an all-time high,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “Our faith has got to continue to be there. We’ve got to play as a team, as a unit. All season long it’s kind of been like us versus everybody. I look at it as no different now.”
Brown and Jayson Tatum helped orchestrate Boston’s third-quarter comeback that flipped what was once a 16-point deficit into a 66-61 lead, at one point drilling eight 3-pointers in a row. It felt like the fourth quarter of Boston’s Game 1 win, when it ambushed the Warriors and reset the basketball world’s expectations for this series.
But with Brown and Tatum rolling, and Boston’s bench players having scuffled through a forgettable first half, coach Ime Udoka stuck with his two stars. Then the duo stalled in the fourth, combining to go 2 for 9 from the field and 5 for 8 from the foul line, with three turnovers.
Udoka said afterward that fatigue might have been a factor. Tatum and Brown mostly brushed off that suggestion, but Tatum acknowledged that he needed to use his legs more to give himself more lift and more of a chance.
Said Brown: “I wanted to be on the floor. Ime trusted me to be out there.”
For the Celtics, the night felt like a missed opportunity. They had spent the first four games of this series chasing and cursing Curry as he danced into open space and punished them with one 3-pointer after another.
In this game, he took nine shots from beyond the arc, missed them all, and scored 16 points. Boston’s plan to wear him down at the defensive end was finally leaving a mark. But it did not end up mattering.
Andrew Wiggins, who has performed well as Tatum’s primary defender, had 26 points and 13 rebounds, and Klay Thompson hit a pair of big 3-pointers to slow Boston’s third-quarter momentum and finished with 21 points.
Tatum had 27 points and 10 rebounds, but his night will be remembered for his ineffective final quarter. These playoffs were viewed as the All-NBA first-teamer’s chance to truly ascend, but so far his signature moments have been few and far between. And on Monday, Brown wasn’t much help, going just 5 for 18 from the field with five turnovers.
“We dropped the ball execution-wise,” Brown said. “Offensively, we’ve got to be better. I got to be better.”
When the Celtics are rolling, they can be a freight train. But when things unravel, it is best to avert your eyes. They appeared to be reaching a boiling point during this game. Marcus Smart and Udoka both picked up technical fouls, and Udoka and referee Tony Brothers had to be separated during a brief altercation. Udoka later said that Brothers took offense to Udoka pointing at him, and Udoka’s own displeasures were obvious.
“Regardless if we feel like calls are going our way or not, just in those moments we just got to be better not letting distractions distract us,” Tatum said.
The Warriors rocked the Celtics at the start, opening the game with a 24-8 run and using their physicality to keep Boston’s attack off balance.
“They were the aggressor on defense, kind of blowing up some of our actions,” Udoka said. “Our spacing wasn’t the best due to that.”
The Celtics were fortunate to be down 12 at halftime, and from the later stages of the second quarter through the start of the third, they could not miss. A Grant Williams three-point play with 3:55 left in the third gave Boston a 66-61 lead, its largest.
But Thompson answered with a pair of 3-pointers, and after Brown missed a 3 with 5.8 seconds left, Jordan Poole banked in a 38-footer at the buzzer, giving the Warriors a 75-74 lead and setting the stage for their fourth-quarter onslaught that occurred while Curry watched from the sidelines.
Read more Globe stories about Game 5
- It’s not over for the Celtics yet, but it sure feels like it | Dan Shaughnessy
- The Celtics reverted back to their worst selves on the biggest stage, and there’s no room for error or excuses now | On Basketball
- Celtics show third-quarter fight, but Warriors put their backs to the wall, and other Game 5 observations | Instant analysis
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.