It seems like ages ago that the Celtics stole Game 1 of these NBA Finals in San Francisco and looked like favorites to win the championship. They have dropped three of four games to the Warriors since then, are currently riding their first two-game losing streak of these playoffs, and return home for Game 6 on Thursday once again facing elimination.
The outlook certainly is not rosy, but the series is not over, either.
“Not that it’s going to be easy or it’s going to be given to us, but you should be extremely confident as long as you’ve got a chance,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “We got a chance tomorrow.”
Here are nine reasons why the Celtics could still dig out of a gloomy predicament and find a way to win the NBA title.
1. The Warriors have left daylight in close-out games
During these playoffs Golden State is 0-3 in its first chance to finish a series. Those losses didn’t end up mattering, obviously, because the Warriors are still standing. But it could be an indication that they let up when they have a cushion. The Celtics are the best team Golden State has faced this postseason. If the Warriors are unable to win Thursday, they could regret the missed opportunity. Anything is possible in a Game 7, where one fluky performance can change everything.
2. The Celtics are aware of their biggest flaw
Boston’s barometer for success is quite simple. The Celtics are 14-2 when they commit fewer than 16 turnovers and 0-7 when they do not. Of course, the team has been aware of this trend for some time and hasn’t always been able to do much about it. But when the stakes have been at their highest, Boston has been able to refocus and shake off these issues. It averaged 11.7 turnovers per game in its three elimination-game wins in these playoffs, and never had more than 14.
3. Robert Williams appears healthy again
The postseason has been a roller-coaster for the talented young center who has battled left knee soreness related to his March 30 surgery to repair a torn meniscus. His playing time was limited and he appeared rusty when he returned for the final two games of the opening-round win over the Nets. He had a setback when he suffered a bone bruise in the semifinals against the Bucks, and at random times since then he has appeared hobbled. But for most of this series Williams has resembled the athletic force who became such an asset for the Celtics this year. Over the last two games he topped the 30-minute mark for the first time this postseason, and he is shooting a blistering 88.9 percent from the field in the series.
4. The defense has remained very good
During the regular season the Celtics’ elite defense allowed just 106.2 points per 100 possessions. In the NBA Finals, against a powerhouse offense, that figure has risen slightly to 110.6, which would still have ranked in the top 10 in the NBA during the regular season. Stephen Curry has had a few masterful performances, but Boston’s wall is hardly crumbling. And when effort wanes, it is most visible at that end of the court.
“We’re defending well enough to win,” coach Ime Udoka said.
5. Curry has finally cooled? Maybe?
The Warriors won Game 5 despite the fact that Curry missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. It was the first playoff game of his career in which he did not make at least one. That could have just been an outlier, but what if it’s actually the start of a small slump? The Celtics made a concerted effort to force Curry into defensive actions in Game 5 in an attempt to wear him down, and that may have impacted him. At 34 years old he could be feeling fatigue as this long postseason winds down. He probably won’t go 0 for 9 again, but this series would be in a different place if he had not caught fire over the first four games.
6. Jayson Tatum might be warming up
Look, this just hasn’t been a great postseason for Tatum, a first-team All-NBA choice. He’s essentially had two signature moments: His 46-point eruption in Game 6 in Milwaukee and his buzzer-beating, game-winning layup in Game 1 against the Nets. Otherwise, he’s been, well, fine. But in Game 5 he shot 10 of 20, his first night shooting at least 50 percent in the Finals. And his 3-pointer has looked good throughout the series. If he can convert a tough finish or two early in Game 6 and find a rhythm at the free-throw line, there could still be time for his closing surge. Boston has won its last six games in which Tatum attempted at least 10 foul shots.
7. Third-quarter disasters could be in the past
Over the first four games of this series the Celtics were absolutely walloped during third quarters, outscored by 50.6 points per 100 possessions. The damage was so severe that it probably allowed some doubts and unease to creep in during halftime. But in the third quarter of Game 5, the Celtics hit six 3-pointers and outscored Golden State, 35-24. If nothing else, it should no longer be a dark cloud.
8. The Celtics are bigger, more athletic, and prepared to pounce
When Williams is healthy and the turnovers are limited, Boston is able to exploit one of its strengths in this matchup. In Boston’s 16-point win in Game 3, it committed just 12 turnovers, grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, and scored 22 second-chance points.
9. The road isn’t daunting
The Celtics insisted on Wednesday that they are not looking past Thursday’s Game 6, and they would certainly be wise not to. But in this case, the considerably more significant hurdle would loom Sunday, with a potential Game 7 in San Francisco. But the Celtics have already won there once in this series, and are 8-4 on the road in these playoffs. These environments just don’t affect them very much.