The Celtics gathered prior to practice Wednesday to discuss the importance of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, a must-win game to continue their quest toward their first title in 14 years.
The environment Thursday at TD Garden will be raucous, a definite home-court advantage as the Celtics attempt to steal back momentum of the series, which they lost with two consecutive defeats.
While coach Ime Udoka is convinced some tactical and perhaps lineup adjustments could force a Game 7, the players have to overcome their first consecutive losses as a fully healthy team since January. The Warriors have the Celtics shaken, and their defense has forced Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown into pedestrian scorers and playmakers.
The Boston defense limited Stephen Curry into a jittery shooter in Game 5, and still lost because it couldn’t contain Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson, Gary Payton II, and Jordan Poole.
The Warriors can cement their dynasty with a fourth championship in eight years. The Lawrence O’Brien Trophy will be present and there is certainly a Boston night spot that’s prepared to host the Warriors’ champagne postgame party.
“As confident as we are in the situations we’ve been in, we understand Golden State is a high-IQ, well-coached team that’s not going to beat themselves. You have to go out there and take it,” Udoka said. “For us, confidence is always [there] because we’ve been through it. But we can help ourselves and play better offense overall and not aid them with the turnovers. All the same little things we talked about throughout the series.”
What can the Celtics do to prevent a Golden State coronation? Stop turning over the ball. Get off to a positive start. Get fourth-quarter execution from Brown and Tatum. Play with an edge not seen yet this season, meaning not falling for Draymond Green head games or getting consumed with the officiating. The Celtics have to be as mentally strong as they ever have, and that means Brown and Tatum have to serve as leaders and set examples for their teammates.
Their leadership may not be as vocal, but it has to be present.
“We’re all professionals and adults, we know what’s at stake,” Tatum said. “Everybody in that locker room should and is going to understand what we got to do, what’s on the line. So it shouldn’t take a hero speech or anything like that. Everybody should be juiced up and ready to play. I’m not even going to say if they’re not, it’s a problem. Everybody is going to be ready to play. I’m not worried about that at all.”
The Celtics have proven they can beat the Warriors. They won two of the first three games by a combined 28 points. But that Game 3 victory seems like a month ago. Golden State coach Steve Kerr obviously found something after that Game 3 loss. The Warriors have: 1.) forced Tatum and Brown into drivers against multiple defenders instead of 3-point shooters; 2.) have used Wiggins as more of a scorer (mostly against Derrick White); and 3.) they have put pressure on the Celtics’ bench players to score and they simply haven’t.
The Celtics need more production from Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard and White. Or Udoka needs to give more minutes to Daniel Theis or Aaron Nesmith for stretches to defend and produce. The Celtics have scored 88, 97 and 94 points and have shot 39.5 percent from the field and committed 17.3 turnovers in the three Finals losses.
The offense has been a major disappointment the past two games.
“Yeah, I mean, you look at the big picture, we’re defending well enough to win,” Udoka said. “It’s really some stagnant lulls offensively that have really hurt us. We’ll have a quarter or two or three of really good basketball, then have that quarter or two that really have hurt us.
“For us, we want to focus on the offensive end, because I think we’ve guarded enough to win. Game 4, if we finish the game off well, not that five-minute stint, we’d be in good shape. That’s our optimism. We’ve fought off three elimination games, won some Game 7s. But you can’t just rely on that, that we’ve been there. You have to do things well to start the game, not put ourselves behind the eight ball like we did last game.”
The Celtics can’t lack motivation or blame fatigue. Their reputations are at stake. If they lose Game 6 and drop the final three games of this series after taking a 2-1 lead, the theories will begin flying: the Celtics were inexperienced, they wilted under the pressure of a championship team, Tatum isn’t a top-five player, the bench needs more depth, the team never solved its season-long issues with turnovers.
If they don’t want to hear these criticisms, win Game 6. Shift the pressure to Golden State, send the series back to San Francisco. Be a better version of what you’ve shown over the past two games.
“All the motivation in the world,” Brown said. “Game 6 on our home floor in front of our fans, last game in TD Garden. Nothing more needs to be said. We’re looking forward to the challenge. We got to embrace it. Ain’t no other way around it. Last game on our home floor to kind of embody our whole season. We’re looking to give it everything we got. We are not scared. We do not fear the Golden State Warriors. We want to come out and play the best version of basketball that we can.
“We know it’s a good team over there. We know they’ve done it before. But we have all the belief in ourselves. We’re going to come out and leave it all out there. That’s the whole intent.”
The Celtics have to recapture the motivation and consistency they have seemingly lost, and it’s on Tatum and Brown to spark this immediate resurgence.