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Christopher L. Gasper

It seems like the Celtics do everything the hard way, and that may lead to their downfall

From left, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, and Marcus Smart watched the closing minute of Game 5 from the bench.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics own the NBA’s best defense, but they’ve finally run into a playoff opponent they have no defense for: themselves.

All playoffs long, the Celtics have flirted with fire, giving away games and giving teams second chances. That unpleasant smell is a singed Celtics jersey as they finally got burned by the Golden State Warriors.

The Celtics find themselves one loss from extinction in a season of distinction after dropping consecutive games for the first time this postseason, falling to the Warriors, 104-94, in Game 5 Monday night at Chase Center in San Francisco. Suddenly, the Green trail, 3-2, in a series whose steering wheel they held.


These Celtics do almost everything the hard way. Sometimes it feels like it’s the only way they know. They were a .500 team (25-25) 61 percent of the way through the regular season. They survived squandering Game 5 at home to Milwaukee and a 3-2 series deficit in the conference semifinals, then withstood a no-show Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami to win in seven.

Andrew Wiggins was dominant during key moments in Game 5, while Jayson Tatum appeared to struggle down the stretch.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

But these Warriors, basketball royalty and winners of three NBA titles, are too good a team for the Celtics to spot games, to let up off the mat, and expect to walk away with the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Celtics are playing a very dangerous game of great escapes. The law of averages says they can’t keep extricating themselves from the basketball equivalent of straitjackets and sealed tanks of water.

The good news is that being put in do-or-die situations seems to bring out the best in the Celtics. The bad news is that the Celtics seem unable to summon their best basketball until they’re in a do-or-die situation.

Jayson Tatum said after Game 4 they “don’t do this [stuff] on purpose. I promise you that.” Well, it certainly feels like they do, even if it’s subconsciously.


If they don’t win it all, Game 5 will go down as a microcosm of the Celtics season: dig a giant hole, play utterly brilliant basketball to escape it, then fall short when it matters most while bemoaning the officiating.

Peak Celtics.

The start was atrocious, as the Celtics made just 4 of their first 15 shots and trailed by 16 in the first quarter. Their first 12 3-point attempts were wayward. They trailed by 12 at halftime (51-39).

“Poor start overall. That’s hard to explain that, why that is,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka, who doesn’t know what to expect from his team after 105 games.

“But we got back in it. Turnovers, missed free throws, a little bit talking to the refs too much didn’t help us in the fourth. But the start is hard to explain. We were guarding well enough … but our offense was stagnant, unaggressive.”

In typical Celtics fashion, they stormed back, using a 19-4 run and a stretch of eight consecutive made threes spanning the second and third quarters to seize a 58-55 lead. Their lead reached 5, and only a miracle 38-foot bank shot at the buzzer from Jordan Poole prevented them from taking an advantage into the fourth quarter.

Jordan Poole delivered another dramatic buzzer beater in Game 5, as his long-distance jumper at the end of the third quarter electrified the Golden State crowd.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Then the Green unraveled, losing their cool and their shooting touch. The Celtics closed the game as they started it, shooting just 4 for 15 in the final frame.


Their offense and ball movement ground to a halt; instead they hunted hero threes and settled for fadeaways. They missed nine of their first 10 shots and scored just 20 points, 6 coming in garbage time from Luke Kornet and Aaron Nesmith.

“For us, it’s really about consistency,” said Udoka. “That’s the thing we’re not having throughout a full game is consistent efforts, sustained effort, more so offensively than anything.

“That’s the part where we got to have carryover not only game to game but quarter to quarter, where we saw it happened in the third but not the fourth.

“Obviously, we are all frustrated with [Game 5] a little bit, but even prior quarters and games. Our message is to take it one at a time. We’ve been here before, did it against Milwaukee. Let’s bring it back out to the Bay.”

That sounds good, and if any team can force a Game 7, it’s the Celtics. They’ve majored in springing out of the grave that has been dug for them.

But this loss clearly wounded them. You could see it in their eyes and feel it in their voices, even as they professed unwavering confidence. Their belief was truly shaken for the first time all postseason.

The Celtics had begun to believe they were immune to the flames they were fanning. Then they felt the burn.

They hadn’t dropped consecutive games since March 28 and 30, and, as the Celtics cognoscenti point out, the first of those losses against Toronto came resting four of their five starters.


Making matters worse was that they failed to capitalize on arguably the worst game of Stephen Curry’s playoff career. Golden State’s God of Threes dropped 43 points in Game 4 and had drilled at least five threes in every game of the series.

Stephen Curry failed to connect from three-point land on Monday -- here, he gets his shot blocked by Grant Williams in the third quarter of Game 5.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

In Game 5, he shot like a middle-aged hooper at your local YMCA. He was 0 for 9 from 3-point range and 7 of 22 overall for 16 points, marking the first time in his playoff career that he failed to make a 3-pointer and snapping a streak of 233 straight games (regular and postseason) with a trey.

The Celtics turned down that lucky chip, undone by self-inflicted wounds: 18 turnovers, 10 missed free throws, and a missing sense of urgency in the most important game of the season.

“We was looking around expecting somebody to bail us out,” said Jaylen Brown, who was just 5 for 18 for 18 points.

The Celtics are capable of coming back to win this series. It would be on-brand for them. But doing things the hard way is hazardous and perilous.

Now, the modern-day Houdinis of the Hardwood are charged with choreographing their greatest escape yet, producing two straight wins against a Warriors team that hasn’t lost consecutive games all postseason.

It didn’t have to be this way.

“That’s on us,” said Tatum, who scored just 5 of his game-high 27 points over the final 19:51 of game action.


The Celtics remain the one team the Celtics don’t have an answer for.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.